Elizabeth’s conflict with Spain abated
only a little after her defeat of the Armada in 1588, while other problems remained. Political and economic
uncertainty were exacerbated by the increased taxes required to support the war and by some abortive forays into
(Wikimedia Commons) France in support of the Protestant Henry IV at a time of some very poor harvests at home in England. The Nine Years’ War in Ireland further drained her resources, lasting from 1594 until just after her death in March of 1603.
Anxious to avoid another turbulent succession, there were clandestine negotiations with James VI of Scotland during the last month of Elizabeth’s life, she having produced no direct heir. On the day of her death, he was proclaimed King James I without incident, his coronation taking place on 25 July and launching England’s Jacobean age.
Perhaps because of the calm surrounding his assumption of the throne, James seems to have been a relatively
well–liked ruler. In 1597 he had begun work on writings that expounded what amounted to the theory of divine–right
(Wikimedia Commons) monarchy, wherein a ruler was invested with absolute power over his subjects by God, to whom alone he answered. In return, he was expected to act always in the best interest of those subjects.
James’s reign was no less difficult than Elizabeth’s, whose fiscal problems he inherited. He concluded a treaty that ended hostilities with Spain in 1604, but the next year faced the Gunpowder Plot, wherein Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up Parliament, along with most of its denizens. The Popish Recusants Act of 1606 invoked stronger measures against Catholics as a result, giving James the right to demand of any citizen an oath denying the Pope’s authority over the King. Meanwhile, he had begun sponsorship of the collection and translation of biblical texts that would be released in 1611 as the Authorized or King James version.
Elizabethan and Jacobean England are especially noted for literary works like those of Shakespeare and Marlowe, and for a diverse musical life, despite being somewhat insulated geographically and artistically, from the rest of Europe. It was the golden age of the Elizabethan madrigal, which was given an especially strong boost with the release of Musica Transalpina, a collection of “Englished” Italian madrigals, but the lute song — for solo voice and lute accompaniment — was particularly popular among the gentry, where it was considered perhaps less proletariat. Whereas musica secreta had been pursued in Ferrara, in England the aristocracy, including most of Henry VIII’s wives and even Elizabeth herself, cultivated private singing in more leisurely, intimate settings.
John Dowland was one of England’s most famous composers. Born in 1563, he went to France in the service of Henry
(IMSLP) Cobham in 1580, where he espoused Catholicism. After returning to England in 1584, he married, then completed a degree in music from Oxford. He entered the service of King Christian IV of Denmark in 1598, but although very much valued at court, he was dismissed in 1606 following some extended absences. In 1612, Dowland was engaged as a lutenist in the service of James I.
Although most of his music was written for the lute, Dowland also published a number of song books containing works that could be performed by a self–accompanied solo singer, an ensemble of singers, or a group of viols, which latter remained popular in England even while the violin was making headway in Italy.
Equally as famous, but evidently less able to
keep his Catholicism to himself was William Byrd. In earlier years he seems to have been in some trouble for
(Wikimedia Commons) over–elaborate musical settings and organ playing, which Puritans frowned upon. Nevertheless he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572, where he enjoyed less oversight given Elizabeth’s rather warmer attitude toward display. His reputation was later marred as a result of greater involvement with Catholicism, especially following a Papal Bull absolving him and his Catholic countrymen for disobedience to the queen. Along with a good deal of sacred music, Byrd published instrumental works like variations on popular tunes such as Sellinger’s Round and The Carman’s Whistle.
The remarkable manuscript collection of
keyboard music known as the Fitzwilliam Virginals Book was donated to Cambridge University in 1816 by its
(Wikimedia Commons) owner, Viscount Fitzwilliam. Its origin and provenance are in dispute — it is sometimes called Elizabeth’s Virginal Book but there is no evidence she ever owned or even saw it. It contains almost three hundred mostly short, light works for one of the most popular keyboard instruments of the day, including dances, sets of variations, fantasies and song arrangements, among them Amarilli di Julio Romano.
(IMSLP) Other authors represented include John Bull, who was particularly famous for his keyboard playing and compositions. He was styled ‘Doctor’ Bull upon receiving a doctorate from Oxford in 1592, and was the first professor of music of Gresham College with, it seems, the help of Queen Elizabeth herself. He continued in royal service after James succeeded her. His The King’s Hunt is included in the Fitzwilliam, along with a variety of other works.
Almost all of the known works of Giles Farnaby appear in the Fitzwilliam. He was by trade a joiner, but graduated with a degree in music from Christ Church Oxford on the same day, as it happens, as did John Bull. Among his output are such varied works as Giles Farnaby His Dream and His Rest.