English Music Part I

English Music 1

English music, the music of the English-speaking and cultural area in Great Britain, the description of which generally also includes the independent developments in the regions of Scotland and Wales as well as Ireland.

However, the following article focuses only on English music history, while Scottish, Welsh and Irish music have their own contributions.

The current characterization of England as a “country without music” does not correspond to reality. Although the innovative tendencies in terms of composition are not as pronounced as in other countries, England has a rich musical culture with quite specific peculiarities.

From the Celtic roots to the Middle Ages

Some of the oldest, Celtic, musical material (bard) has been preserved in folk music (e.g. in pentatonic expressions). One of the largest organs in Europe with 400 pipes was built in Winchester in the 10th century. It was there that the Winchester Tropar was created around 1000, an important collection of simple polyphony, which is considered a milestone in early Christian English church music and the influences of the Notre Dame school can be recognized in the highly developed polyphony of English composers. The most important cultural bearers in the following centuries were the colleges and the Chapel Royal. The penetration of sacred art music with polyphonic folk music is shown in the “Summer Canon” (between 1240 and 1310) from Reading Abbey, with its English and Latin text, with its third and sixth parallels typical of ancient folk music. This sentence style, which i.a. is responsible for the characteristic English “full sound” and the polyphonic practice of the Faburden produced, also shaped church music of the late Middle Ages, as evidenced by the Old Hall Manuscript (with 24 composers named, including J. Dunstable) and the Eton Choirbook; Together with the Worcester fragments (13th / 14th centuries) they show the peculiarity of the English tradition compared to the mainland Ars nova which affects it and which is called “Contenance Angloise” on the continent (Martin le Franc in “Le champion des dames «, Around 1440).

Tudor period

Under the rule of the Tudor kings (1485–1603), England experienced a cultural heyday that went down in history as the Elizabethan Age, especially from 1588 onwards. The work of Dunstable, J. Taverner and L. Power deserves special mention here, who, together with the Dutch composer G. Dufay, developed the polyphony of Franco-Flemish music and thus decisively shaped early modern music. The formation of the cyclical tenor mass can be traced back to English origins.

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, English music took a back seat. As composers of independent (English-language) church music, R. Fayrfax, J. Taverner, William Mundy († around 1591) and T. Tallis should be mentioned. The balletto and the canzonette were cultivated under the influence of Italian music, and the madrigal in particular experienced a heyday in the 16th century in the works of T. Morley, J. Wilbye, T. Weelkes and W. Byrd, who also played the English virginalists – School established.

This secular repertoire for keyboard instruments, for which J. Bull and O. Gibbons also made masterful contributions, was initially based on Italian models. The “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book” (completed in 1620) contains around 300 compositions that decisively influenced the development of piano music. Another English peculiarity is the chamber music of the consorts, for which a.o. T. Morley (“Consort lessons”, 1599), Thomas Simpson (* 1582, † after 1630?), “Taffel consort”, 1621), H. Purcell, who pointed to the Baroque era, and J. Dowland Contributions made. The latter, who is considered to be the central musical personality of the English Renaissance, was among others. for his solo songs (“ayres”) accompanied by the lute, he was already praised as the “English Orpheus” during his lifetime.


The courtly theater form of the masque developed in the Baroque period, which was particularly influenced by the most important English stage composer of this epoch, H. Purcell, in works such as “Dido and Aeneas”. He also led the tradition of the anthem to a climax in church music, enriched English music in the fields of opera, cantata, lied, chamber and piano music and influenced German compositional art.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the genres Catch (canon-like round song; collection by John Hilton (* 1559, † 1657), “Catch that catch can”, 1652) and Glee (polyphonic songs in a homophonic setting) were cultivated in the 17th and 18th centuries, composed among other things by T. Arne, Benjamin Cooke (* 1734, † 1793) and Samuel Webbe (* 1740, † 1816). In addition, the carols (popular singing dances, especially Christmas carols) have been widespread since the end of the 14th century; the group dance (country dance) formed an important factor of sociability until modern times (John Playford (* 1623, † 1686), “The Dancing master”, 1650). The folk song genre of the ballad, which flourished in the Middle Ages, can be found up to the 17th century. Echoes of these specific forms of English vocal music can even be found in pop music, for example in the Beatles songs “Eleanor Rigby”, “Can’t buy me love” and “Help”.

The great influence of foreign countries began with G. F. Handel. The Italian opera made its debut early on. A German, J. C. Pepusch, even wrote the music for the popular satirical “Beggar’s opera” (1728; beggar opera). In addition, numerous Italians worked, z. B. F. Geminiani. Meanwhile, the English-language oratorios by the Dutchman W. de Fesch and above all by Handel, which established his fame (especially “Israel in Egypt”, 1739; “The Messiah”, 1742; Jephtha “, 1752), at home in the English way of the bourgeois public and thus both an expression and a confirmation of national identity. His instrumental works, the “Water Music Suite” (1717) and the “Music for the Royal Fireworks” (1749), composed on behalf of King George I and George II respectively, testify to the royal esteem.

English Musical Renaissance

According to thedresswizard.com, foreign music (s) also shaped English culture during the classical and romantic periods: Johann Christian Bach established the “Bach-Abel Concerts” with C. F. Abel in 1765 and thus established a demanding public musical life in London for the first time. J. Haydn came to London between 1791 and 1795 through the concert company of the German J. P. Salomon (London symphonies; Oxford symphony 1791). The Italian M. Clementi and the Czech J. L. Dussek were also very influential in English musical life. Conversely, the Clementi student J. Field had a stimulating effect on F. Chopin with his “Nocturnes” for piano.

In 1813 in London a. from the acting there M. Clementi founded the “Philharmonic Society” (since 1912 “Royal Philharmonic Society”), the symphonic oeuvre L. van Beethoven made known in England. Later, L. Spohr, F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy and A. Dvořák also emerged as composers, so that the English audience became familiar with the development of continental European symphonies and the more recent oratorio. Also the operas of W. A. ​​Mozart, G. Meyerbeers, G. Donizettis, G. Verdis, C. M. von Weber and finally R. Wagner were given on English stages, but often in very different versions.

English Music 1