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Volume 6, no. 2:

A Biographical Dictionary of English Court Musicians, 1485–1714. Compiled by Andrew Ashbee and David Lasocki, assisted by Peter Holman and Fiona Kisby. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998. [xxvi, 1249 pp. in 2 volumes. ISBN 1-85928-087-0. $152.95.]

Reviewed by John Milsom*

1. Introduction

2. Coverage

3. Locating Information

4. Conclusion

Reference


1. Introduction

1.1 Anyone who works on English music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries already owes Andrew Ashbee a huge debt of gratitude for his eight-volume series Records of English Court Music (1986–95). These meticulously researched books trawl through the archives with extraordinary thoroughness, but inevitably the raw data they present is often hard to digest. As a supplement, Ashbee has now produced the present two-volume work, which both summarizes the raw data and amplifies it from other sources. Others have helped him with the task, principally David Lasocki, and to a lesser extent Peter Holman and Fiona Kisby. Nevertheless the dictionary is really a monument to Ashbee’s sharp eyes, careful transcriptions, and quite literally decades of hard work in the archives. The dictionary itself occupies 1187 well-filled pages and is followed by useful appendices and an index, all within sturdy bindings. It is not cheap, but the quantity of information and quality of production fully justify the cost.
 

2. Coverage

2.1 This is a biographical dictionary of the singers and violinists, trumpeters and harpers, whether British-born or foreign, who were paid for their labors out of the royal purse. Many of these musicians also composed, but in general the archival records deal with payments for performing, only very occasionally for composing, and the dictionary makes no attempt to provide work-lists for composers or commentary on their musical achievements. This is no great loss; the revised edition of The New Grove, with its emphasis on composers, will soon serve us well in those respects, and although the biographies in The New Grove are bound to compete with the Biographical Dictionary for major figures such as Henry Purcell, it is to the Biographical Dictionary that we will still turn for detailed information about men such as Henry’s relative, Thomas Purcell (1627–82), who was principally a singer and instrumentalist rather than a composer.

2.2 The Biographical Dictionary covers everyone, no matter how slight their connection with the court. Every chorister of the Chapel Royal, every trumpeter, every musician in ordinary gets a mention, plus a reference to the relevant volume(s) of the parent work. Cross-references are also given to other biographical sources—a vital link, since Records deals only with court records, whereas the musicians themselves usually had lives and careers elsewhere. There are even entries for figures who, like Sampson Estwick, are connected to court circles only by second-person report (Hawkins in this case), not by archival record.

2.3 No attempt has been made to turn the facts into elegant cameos; only rarely do the authors try to fill out the evidence with biographical speculation. Quotations from contemporary witnesses such as Evelyn, Pepys and Ashmole add many human touches, and details of wills are provided wherever possible. There are no illustrations, but the existence of a portrait will always be mentioned.
 

3. Locating Information

3.1 Inevitably, a biographical dictionary arranged aphabetically by musician’s name includes facts that will be of interest to those who are not centrally concerned with biography. For them, the index is a vital resource; and it only partly satisfies. If you are searching for court musicians with (say) a Cambridge degree or a connection with King’s College, you will find the index’s blanket entry for “Cambridge”—60 page references—strangely undifferentiated, certainly when compared with the index’s careful breakdown of London Companies or parish churches. There are no entries in the index for printing and publishing, for book ownership, or for payments for music copying, all of them strange omissions bearing in mind today’s interest in the history of the book. Women feature in the dictionary—the singer Leonora Albrici, for instance—but the index will not help you locate them. Pepys and Evelyn make guest appearances on many pages of the dictionary, but one looks in vain for them in the index, which is principally of places, not of persons. If you are searching for lute-makers, neither the index nor the appendices will help you locate William Allaby, and presumably others of his kind who never achieved official status at court. In short, there are times when one wishes that the Biographical Dictionary were searchable electronically, and not a printed book—or, rather, that it existed in both formats, much as the new edition of The New Grove will do.

3.2 Far better served—and this is to be expected by the very nature of the Biographical Dictionary—are readers who want to know about the history of institutional music-making at court. The appendices include important chronological lists of instrumentalists and singers; and, for the first time, it is possible to see accurately at a glance the full succession of singing men of the Chapel Royal, from Kite and Banaster in the late fiftheenth century right up to the age of Purcell. Also worth mentioning is the finding-list of variant spellings of names (printed at the start of vol. 1), useful not so much for locating “Oostrewijck” among the myriad ways of representing his distinctive name, but rather for showing how “Massu” can stand for “Manseno” and “Merton” for “Martin.”
 

4. Conclusion

4.1 Those who work on English music in the age of Cornish or Byrd, Child, or Purcell will at some stage almost certainly need to consult these volumes. For most people’s purposes, the Biographical Dictionary will function perfectly well without Records by its side. If, however, you already have a set of Records on your shelves, it would be a false economy not to supplement it with the Biographical Dictionary, since the new work is so much more than a summary of the records themselves. Research libraries should make every effort to shelve all these books together, to benefit readers who will need to turn quickly from one to the other. Conveniently, all the volumes are the same height, and the black bindings of the Biographical Dictionary contrast nicely with the red of Records.


Reference

* John Milsom (milsom@middlebury.edu) has published widely in the field of Tudor music. He is currently at work on a new catalog of musical source materials at Christ Church, Oxford, and a monograph provisionally titled Decisions and Revisions in Renaissance Polyphony.
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