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Book Review

Music and Society in Early Modern England

Music and Society in Early Modern England by Walsh
Christopher Marsh
Cambridge University Press (2010) pp xiii + 609
ISBN-10: 0521898323
ISBN-13: 978-0521898324
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Music and Society in Early Modern England is a study of "popular" music in the period before the Enlightenment, roughly from the Tudors to the post-Restoration decades. By "popular" Christopher Marsh, Reader in Early Modern History at Queen's University, Belfast, means ballads, dancing, psalm-singing, bell-ringing and the like – and much more. As David Wulstan showed 25 years ago in his landmark study, Tudor Music (ISBN-10: 0877451354 ISBN-13: 978-0877451358), these activities and the sound world which they built had a profound effect on more formal music-writing of that time.

In Music and Society in Early Modern England Marsh draws on an impressive array of sources: ballad texts (of course), plays, manuscripts (of course); but also diaries, wills, court records and documents and so on. The substantial and highly readable book consists of nine chapters, after the aptly-subtitled, introduction, "The ringing island", namely: The power of music; Occupational musicians, of two sorts; Recreational musicians; two chapters on ballads; dance; and two on parish church music. There cannot be many areas of public and private life that music failed to influence and enrich but that are left unilluminated by Marsh. And examined with a deft balance of uncomplicated narrative, informed commentary, apposite illustration with mostly primary sources, and trenchant conclusion. Marsh knows his field inside out – and it shows from first page to last.

This is a thorough, entertaining and highly informative study, then. It chronicles, explains and lucidly describes areas of music-making which would be obvious even to the general reader and music-lover. Though here there are some surprises… which the most popular psalm melodies were, for example [p 413], and the importance of bell-ringing. The book also suggests probably otherwise unthought-of ones: the distribution and significance of instrument ownership (some expert quantitative historical research here); and what Marsh calls the "dance-debate" [pp 354-366]… the symbolism of dance, its role at court, moral implications, resonances in literature and so on. You'd have to be very well-informed indeed about all aspects of the period's music and musical history not to get something from almost every section of Music and Society in Early Modern England.

Music was everywhere, then, in Early Modern England. Marsh illustrates just how true this was; and what were (and are: cultural history is a continuum) the implications of this for later music-making. Music in all its forms was woven into the very fabric of public, private, ritual, social, family and formal life. That's easy to grasp. But just how it was so, why and what it meant for someone alive in the period, is superbly explained and described by Marsh. Equally important was the fact that pre-Enlightenment thinking made links, connections, saw the Universe holistically. Marsh shows well how music figured in such aspects of wider culture; both as a basic concept (in philosophers' and practitioners' writings) and as a series of developments. How, for example, did acoustics explain, re-enforce or equip us to approach the supernatural? As this topic recurs throughout the book, Marsh deals with it sympathetically and effectively for our sensibilities. Also an advantage is some sympathy on our part for the importance of folklore and a culture which has now almost been lost to Rationalism. That will help us fully to understand these aspects of Marsh's well-sculpted discourse. Music is also seen as a social force, of course: in more ways than would probably occur to you at first. Music mediated human and social relationships. Marsh shows how; and uses the metaphor of culture-as-lute. Specifically, sounds are separate, distinct – as were classes, professional roles, lifestyles according to levels of wealth, even gender roles. Yet sounds go well together.

Music, of course, changed greatly during the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. So did society. Marsh looks at the connections. His study assesses the perhaps inevitable skepticism which music attracted during the Commonwealth. There is also a historiographical thread in Marsh's work: few have been the historians who have welcomed music openly (even as a "slave" source to one or other of their theses), "… it is undeniable that the social and cultural history of early modern England has in general been written with only fleeting attention to music" [p 25]. This is all the more unfortunate because of the otherwise established ubiquity of music, and its obvious importance to the people of the time. Marsh is charitable, acknowledging the difficulties (particularly for non specialists) of writing about music. In our culture now, he reminds us, the visual is more prominent. In one way, Marsh's work in explaining the impact of music on contemporaries is all but done for him. He rightly places much emphasis on primary sources (always vital in such a study), and on the case for the importance of music. Then he constructs an intimately-presented narrative of how, if not always why, music changed during the period. There's little so eloquent as people's own accounts.

Music and Society in Early Modern England comes with a specially recorded CD: nearly 50 tracks newly performed by the Dufay Collective and additional singers, ringers, dancers and instrumentalists. The standard of these illustrations is high; the relevance too. The music performed – beginning with the rather startling "rough music", chants, banging and shouts in punishment of a young couple for sexual immorality from, precisely, 1618 – is little more than illustrative, though. They're mostly shorter numbers. You'll probably recognize many of the items on the CD. Others are rarer. Only three of the examples last more than three minutes. But they're amply annotated in the lengthy (30 page) appendix at the end of the book itself; this is indicative of the infinite care that has been taken to source and support every last theme, detail and historical, musical and social example.

The main text of this excellent study is illustrated by monochrome drawings, figures and reproductions of text and image. There is the odd table but no musical examples. This reflects the thrust of Music and Society in Early Modern England, which is historical as much as (or more than) musicological. Marsh is of course well-placed to deal with musical history. But – rightly – his slant is music in history. Although the book's division by theme and topic would make it possible to dip in selectively, reading in linear fashion is more likely to yield fully satisfactory meaning. It's well-produced with an attractive physical layout and a style that encourages engagement.

After finishing Music and Society in Early Modern England you'll probably be struck by how scrupulously and thoroughly it's researched as much as by the cogency of Marsh's narrative… the copious footnotes which Marsh employs are inline, and always helpful. Quotes and quotations abound. The expected exhaustive, albeit described as "Select", bibliography is joined by lists of abbreviations and so on to add to the sense that you're in very good hands with this material, all of it. In other words, this is a scholarly, encyclopedic work; and one that will act as the definitive source of reference for some long time to come. Thoroughly recommended.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Sealey.