Ballads and Songs

Music and the Printed Verse Miscellanies

Poetry miscellanies, ballads and songbooks are intimately linked in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. ‘The miscellanies’, as Wilfred Maynard points out, ‘provide a wide conspectus of kinds of lyric, written to be heard in several distinctive kinds of song and for varied contexts; there are the ballads of A Handefull of pleasant delites, partsongs and consort songs in The Paradyse of daynty deuises, ayres and madrigals and songs from royal entertainments in The Phoenix Nest and Englands Helicon’ (Maynard, 3). Of course, not all the lyrics published in the miscellanies were composed for singing, and when editors compiled miscellanies they were interested in making collections of poetry and not making songbooks. That said, ballads and songbooks often provided sources on which editors drew for their collections, and music informs how lyrics were composed, circulated and performed.

Musical settings accompanying the lyrics ranged from simple and highly flexible tunes to complex settings designed for a number of voices and instruments. If poems had the same metre, then they could often be sung to the same tune. In A Discourse of English Poetrie (1586), William Webbe advised that ‘neither is there anie tune or stroke which may be sung or plaide on instruments, which hath not some poetical ditties framed according to the numbers thereof: some to Rogero, some to Trenchmore, to downe right Squire, to Galliardes, to Pauines, to Iygges, to Brawles, to all manner of tunes which euerie Fidler knowes better then my selfe’ (Webbe, sig. F4v). There was a great deal of crossover between ‘courtly’ lyric verse and the broadside ballad, hence at least twelve poems in Tottel’s Miscellany were registered for publication as ballads. The same lyric could circulate as a broadside ballad set to a popular tune and be given a more complex setting as a part-song. Lyrics set to music appeared in manuscript songbooks compiled by individuals, such as Dallis, Mulliner, or Thomas Myriell, who were often part of a music group, which shared songs and songbooks, or were published in the printed songbooks that appeared in quick succession in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The editor of Englands Helicon took a number of its lyrics from printed songbooks, such as Thomas Morley’s Madrigals to Four Voices (1594), and often advertised the fact in a note at the end of the poem, presumably so that the reader could go to the songbook to find the setting for the lyric for performance.

The source manuscript of Paradise of Dainty Devices was compiled by Richard Edwards, a music master for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, and included poems by William Hunnis, a musician who took over the role of master at Edwards’s death. Thomas Mulliner’s manuscript songbook includes seven lyrics from Paradise that were set as part-songs. Disle’s introduction refers to this new musical fashion when he describes songs to be sung in five parts: ‘the dittie both pithie and pleasaunt, as well for the Inuention as Matter, and will yeld a farre greater delight, beyng as they are, so aptly made to be set to any song in fiue parts, or song to Instrument’ (sig. Aiir). Composers of lute-songs and part-songs borrowed lyrics from The Phoenix Nest for their settings. Conversely, the editor of Englands Helicon drew extensively on printed music books for his collection. A Poetical Rhapsody incorporated a number of lyrics that had been set to music and performed at royal entertainments, and were later published with their musical settings in printed songbooks. Robert Jones claimed that ‘gentlemen’, who probably included Francis and Walter Davison, allowed him to set their lyrics to music in his The first booke of songes & ayres of foure parts with tableture for the lute (1600), which were then later printed in A Poetical Rhapsody.

While there is a great deal of cross-over between ballads and musical settings in manuscript and printed songbooks, for ease of reference the music glossaries have been divided into separate pages, one organised by ballad tunes, and the other organised by musical settings of individual lyrics, searchable via the first line.

Further reading:

Wilfred Maynard, Elizabethan Lyric Poetry and its Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

John Ward, ‘Music for A Handefull of pleasant delites’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 10.3 (1957), 151-8