ISSN: 1089-747X
Copyright © 1995–2012 by the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 6, no. 2:

Music in the English Courtly Masque, 1604–1640. By Peter Walls. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. [xix, 372 pp. ISBN 0-19-816141-7 $70.]

Reviewed by Janet Pollack*

1. Introduction

2. Premises and Organization

3. Quibbles

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

1.1 The challenge presented to the musicologist studying the court masque is like the challenge paleontologists face reconstructing extinct species: the fossils remain, but the soft tissue is rarely preserved. Like fossils, the dramatic texts often survive in print, but the masques’ music, not usually published, did not fare as well. The scholar trying to understand the nature and function of masque music is thus forced to rely on circumstantial evidence, stylistic contexts, and reasoned speculation. Peter Walls does just this. In prose both energetic and engaging, Walls approaches the problem with a wide-angle lens that allows him to delve into a variety of disciplines and contextual issues. The result is a marvelous book—a major contribution to masque scholarship, certain to become a yardstick for later studies of the genre.

2. Premises and Organization

2.1 There are a number of provocative premises underpinning Walls’s concept of the masque, the most important of which are that 1) music had a far more important role in the structure than hitherto believed, and 2) the creation of any masque depended on the loose cooperation between various artistic “departments.” That Walls focuses on the function of music in the masque is not totally new, but his approach to reconstructing the nature of masque song and dance, and his premise that music at times “overwhelmed the text” and defined the action—thus freeing music from its traditionally supporting role—is indeed novel. A central concern of the study is the “interface between the masque’s imaginary integrity and the real world” (p. 4). This opens wide the door for all sorts of interdisciplinary topics, and calls up a host of questions. How was music connected with a masque’s central idea or device? What was the hierarchy between artistic groups and was there a prescribed sequence of tasks? How did the masque convey a social and coherent artistic vision? These are questions that Walls does not shy away from; his is a wide-ranging, contextual study reaching into every corner of seventeenth-century society, by an author who is clearly well-read and knowledgeable in many areas, not only in matters musical, and not only in England.

2.2 The book is organized in such a way that it can be read as a more or less chronological survey of the development of masque music, beginning with the songs and dances of earlier Jacobean masques and going on to consider the music of the Caroline. Chapter headings reflect the way in which music was composed by different groups of composers working on specific types of music. Chapter 1, for instance, deals with the variety of songs composed by the more important court composers, and Chapter 2 looks at dance and instrumental music, usually prepared by the violinists / dancing masters.

2.3 After briefly setting the stage with a quotation from the prologue of Middleton and Rowley’s A Courtly Masque, the introduction offers us what Walls envisages as the underlying “matrix” of the early Stuart masque (the matrix, on pp. 2–3, is Walls’s hypothetical timetable outlining the approximate moment music was performed in a typical masque and the type of music heard at a performance). From this, it is clear that for Walls dance occupied far more time than the spoken drama (pp. 2–3). Now, a premise that prioritizes music is always attractive to the musician, and Walls’s scouring of masque descriptions, texts, literary commonplaces, financial records, and manuscript collections to persuade us of his bold claim, to prove that indeed music was more important in giving meaning and shape to the masque than previously assumed, is very compelling if inconclusive.

2.4 The first chapter provides a fascinating survey of relevant intellectual and political ideas as a backdrop to viewing the masque’s inextricable connection with the social fabric of its time. The topics touched upon range from musica speculativa to the literary epithalamia, to the masque as “insubstantial pageant” and court propaganda, to consideration of the dramatic text as “authorial accounts of performances” and commercial enterprise. These are all crucial to understanding how the masque was understood by contemporary audiences and exemplify the breadth of the author’s knowledge of seventeenth-century priorities. I only wish that some of the discussions were longer, and some of the terms better explained. For instance, I found Walls’s definition of the term “musica speculativa”—an important concept that he threads throughout the text—unclear; he tends to use it like an umbrella for Boethius’s three musical categories (musica mundana, musica humana, and musica instrumentalis) making little distinction between the speculative and practical—a distinction important for the time.1

2.5 The remainder of the chapter is divided into “musical sources for the Jacobean masque” (and here Walls looks to Thomas Campion’s masque texts with extant music, John Dowland’s books of airs, Alfonso Ferrabosco’s Ayres of 1609, and other manuscript collections in British libraries), and ends with naming masque composers. Here, a host of colorful characters make their appearance, including Thomas Giles, Jeremy Herne, Thomas Lupo, Robert Johnson, along with the major players Ben Jonson, Thomas Campion, Alfonso Ferrabosco, and nearly every other musician associated at the time with the court establishment. This chapter is wonderfully stimulating, so much so that a number of questions and other possibilities come quickly to mind. For instance, I would like to know more about the nature and function of the epithalamium (wedding poem) in the masque, and whether masques specifically intended for nuptials differed in ways from non-wedding tributes. Walls hints at such differences when he points out that aubades in masques associated with wedding celebrations “have a rather different emphasis” (p. 49). Other avenues of inquiry might include seeing if nuptial masques reflect the general thematic conventions and structure of traditional Jacobean epithalamia. Still other possibilities might include a recognition of hermetic and alchemical symbolism in certain masques, particularly the three presented at the 1613 Palatine wedding, and a consideration of how such symbolism may have informed the music.

2.6 The book’s next two chapters focus on the type, structure and function of masque music. The second chapter suggests the probable nature of main-masque songs and shows how they were used as “agents of transformation” (songs as sung commands to introduce and interpret the set dances and revels) and structural delineators that “give emphasis and a sense of triumph” at important moments (p. 50). For support Walls looks to descriptions of songs in the texts, examination of pieces confidently identified as masque tunes, and to types of solo ayres generally encountered in the early seventeenth century. In contrast, the anti-masque songs were “low induction,” rude and of a more popular nature. Equally provocative is the concluding section of the chapter, “The Origins of English Recitative” where Walls re-examines the topic with a thoroughness unencountered in previous studies. Specifically targeting two references to stylo recitativo in the 1640 Folio of Ben Jonson’s Works, Walls concludes there is no reason to think the Folio’s account false for a number of convincing reasons. For one, English musicians would have been familiar with the new Italian monodic style early in the century by their acquaintance with Italian musicians at court, and through Vincenzo Galilei’s Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna shown to be widely read in England early on. Secondly, an examination of the metrical structures of a number of masque verses leads Walls to conclude that recitative “would have been perceived as an appropriately noble vehicle for main-masque verse,” as a means of differentiating “between various modes of speech and singing” (pp. 102–103).

2.7 The third chapter focuses on the masque dances, examining in turn their interpretation, the approach to choreography, kinds of metrical structures, and probable instrumentation, and finishing with Thomas Campion’s Lord Haye’s Masque (1607) as a case study. Walls’s conclusion that dances show no intrinsic connection to a masque’s all-important device (i.e., its emblem or controlling idea) is startling, and his demonstration that certain internal features (namely, symmetrical versus asymmetrical rhythmic groupings) separate main-masque from anti-masque dances, is a major contribution. A dance’s meaning, however, remains dependent on the songs that introduce them. A number of beautifully edited musical examples and two charts convincingly illustrate Walls’s point and demonstrate the care and thoughtfulness that has gone into this study. Also expanded upon here is the subsidiary claim that the masque is a social vision, a vehicle for societal integration established through the linking of main-masque dances to notions of cosmic harmony and the Renaissance idea of decorum. The dance is thus transformed into a model of the “Interweaving of the planets with the fixed stars, and the elegant and harmonious organization and wonderful order” (p. 113). James Shirley / William Lawes’s The Triumph of Peace (1634) and the sources for the Caroline masque are the subjects of the fourth chapter. The shorter ensuing chapter entitled “Music for the Eyes” considers Inigo Jones as the major force behind the invention of the later court masque and reviews the quarrel between Jonson and Jones, which Walls sees as a battle for artistic control, not simply a matter of whose name appears at the top of the title page. The French influences in the Caroline masque (namely, the ballet de cour and Charles I’s Queen Henrietta-Maria) are the subject of the sixth chapter.

2.8 “Courtly” in the book’s title allows inclusion of entertainments presented away from Whitehall. Thus the seventh chapter examines court-like masques presented by the Inns of Court (William Brown’s 1615 Inner Temple Masque or Ulysses and Circe; Middleton’s 1619 Inner Temple Masque or Masque of Heroes), and royal entertainments put on at the homes of aristocrats for the king during his summer progresses (Campion’s 1613 Entertainment at Caversham, and especially his 1633–4 The Gypsies Metamorphosed; Jonson’s 1633 The Entertainment at Wedbeck; and John Milton’s remarkable private 1634 masque Comus, presented at Ludlow Castle). “Realizations” (Chapter 8) pulls together a number of important themes woven throughout the book and demonstrates one of Walls’s major arguments, that artistic groups were more concerned with “general stylistic congruity” than with detailed interconnections between the musical and the literary. As a case study, Walls gives us a detailed account of the making of Oberon: The Faery Prince (1611), which seems an excellent choice, since for this masque there are more than the usual number of surviving documents and masque pieces. The chapter closes with a discussion of the revels, the masque’s defining feature. An epilogue follows that looks at the decline of the Caroline masque just after Charles I left London in 1642 (James Shirley’s 1646 The Triumph of Beauty and 1653 Cupid and Death; William Davenant’s 1656 “operatic” The Siege of Rhodes). A useful appendix listing masques referred to in the text is also given.

3. Quibbles

3.1 If there is a weakness in the book, and I use weakness reluctantly, it may be that Walls occasionally looks for support for his principal argument in places that just cannot provide it. That entries in the Revels Books frequently mention “sumptuous music” but not dramatic structure and poetry is viewed by Walls as evidence of music’s elevated position. However, descriptions in the Revels Books often can be laconic, and usually there is mention of the masque’s devices (a term with broad connotations), machinery, and lighting, suggesting that many theatrical features affected the audience, music being but one. Similarly, Walls’s claim that allusion to all sorts of musical imagery in the dramatic texts indicates “succinctly the symbolic importance of music” may be so, but it helps little in determining whether music was actually heard at these points to enhance the text, as Walls would like to imply. Having said this, I must emphasize that these quibbles are minor, for they do not detract from the overall quality of the study. Walls’s interpretations are for the most part extremely convincing, his research meticulously carried out, and his observations do not strain one’s credulity.

3.2 Another grumble of mine concerns the user-unfriendly index and bibliography. I find it frustrating that numerous subsidiary arguments of considerable interest, and topics (such as epithalamia, emblematics, numerology, among many others) useful in their own right were omitted from the index, and that the bibliography excludes important references, though admittedly cited initially in a footnote. A more comprehensive index, particularly of a sophisticated type that does more than list names and works, and footnotes that provide at the least cross-referencing would greatly bolster the book’s usefulness as a research tool. On the other hand, the carefully selected and well-produced musical examples, and the book’s overall clean presentation should be highly commended, although the editors have occasionally allowed duplicated lines to creep in, a regrettable by-product of cut-and-paste technology (e.g., pp. 102 and 103).

4. Conclusion

4.1 With just the right mix of well-reasoned speculation supported by sound research and meticulous musical analyses, Walls extends earlier masque scholarship beyond its self-acknowledged limitations and more deeply into a thorough consideration of the music. Laudable is Walls’s ability to remain focused—not to digress too far into beguiling tangential issues—yet to provide at every turn enough background on disciplines and topics to make his connections among philosophy, verse, architecture and music intelligible. This is certain to please both musicologists clamoring for contextual relevance as well as those with an interest in performance practice. In the end, Walls has painted for us a vivid and engaging picture of the most ephemeral of art forms.


* Janet Pollack ( is Assistant Professor of Music History and Theory at the University of Puget Sound. Her most recent research focuses on the keyboard anthology Parthenia and its cultural and intellectual context.
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1. “Such ideas derive from musica speculativa—the theories describing the ultimate position of music in the created universe transmitted from ancient Greek sources to the mainstream of Western European thought by Boethius in the early sixth century. The most basic tenet of speculative music is that music is divided into three species, music mundana, musica humana, and musica instrumentalis . . . . These three species were understood, not as separate phenomena, but as different aspects or manifestations of a universal harmony” (pp. 8–9). However, Thomas Morley in 1597 emphatically claimed that: “As for the division, musicke is either speculative or practical” (Thomas Morley, A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music [London, 1597; facsimile reprint, with introduction by Edmund H. Fellows, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937], “Annotations” [upon the first part], 1). Morley’s more polarized view makes it clear that the gap between speculative and practical music had significantly widened by the end of the sixteenth century; Walls’s discussion does not, to my mind, convey this distinction.
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