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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 8 (2002) No. 1

Music Theory in Seventeenth-Century England. By Rebecca Herissone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. [xvi, 316 pp. ISBN 0-19-816700-8 $74]

Reviewed by Penelope Gouk*

1. Sources

2. English Theory

3. Evaluation


1. Sources

1.1 This book started life as a doctoral thesis on Restoration treatises,1 but eventually grew into what aims to be "a comprehensive and detailed investigation of music theory in England from the 1590s until the late 1720s" (p. vii). Although inevitably overlapping with earlier scholarship on English music theory, the book usefully brings the subject to an English-reading audience without ready access to unpublished material.2

1.2 Herissone's sources—listed alphabetically and chronologically in Appendix A and B respectively—comprise just over 100 treatises, mostly printed but including a few manuscripts. More than two-thirds of these sources deal solely with musical rudiments and the rules of composition, and were mostly written by professional musicians encouraging amateurs to start making music themselves. These texts clearly fall into the category of musica practica, the "theory of the art."3 The other works included are not so easily classified, but for convenience are denoted here as "scholarly writings." Herissone notes that these are not only aimed at a different readership, but are for the most part written by a "different class of author" than the practical manuals; that is, university-educated gentleman scholars who did not practice music for a living. As she explains, these texts don't avoid musica practica, but discuss topics in more depth than is strictly necessary for beginners.4 Accordingly they overlap with, or fall into, the category of musica speculativa, the domain of philosophy rather than practice. However, for reasons of length, most topics within the "science of music" are omitted in Herissone's book, and those which are included are discussed "only in terms of the influence they exerted on practical music theory."5 Thus theories of consonance and dissonance are briefly addressed in the context of classifying intervals, while tuning and temperament are touched on in relation to transposition.6 The newly emerging discipline of acoustics is represented by treatises such as Francis Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum (1627) and Samuel Moreland's Tuba Stentorophonica (1672), but the relevance of these particular works to practical music theory is not made explicit. 

1.3 In fact, all the sources of "musical scholarship" included here are used to reinforce the author's claim that English music theory was empirically driven, and consequently was at the forefront of tracking the changes in compositional practice which took place during the Baroque era. To emphasize this trend, texts which demonstrate an understanding of prevailing practice, which tend to downplay learned speculation, and which instruct the reader how to compose more "modern" (i.e. tonal) music, are approvingly labeled "progressive," while more speculative works, including those which dwell on the modes, are described as "conservative." Since progressive texts clearly outnumber conservative treatises in Herissone's list, the case already seems proven in the first chapter on sources. This model of transition provides the framework for the rest of the book, which explores long-term changes in musical thinking through the following chapters on time, pitch structure, harmony, compositional rules, tonality, and texture and form.

2. English Theory

2.1 Of these elements of music theory, time and harmony stand out as those where English theorists demonstrate their "forward-looking" and empirically based ideas. Not coincidentally, these "progressive" trends are all related to new techniques of teaching amateurs how to play instruments together, and to compose simple verse settings. Thus, for example, English theory manuals are already beginning to reflect the development of the metrical system from the end of the sixteenth century. As Herissone points out, this fundamental shift from mensural to metrical music was largely driven by the demands of tablature, a method for identifying where and when to place one's fingers on the strings, holes or keys of a particular instrument to produce the desired sounds. In the long term, instrumental tablature proved to be incompatible with context dependent mensuration, which had long since evolved in the context of vocal polyphony. Further evidence for the instrumentally-based nature of English theory is the growing enthusiasm from around 1660 for using a clock or watch to keep time, instead of relying on the pulse. Again, this technique was perhaps most useful for the readers targeted by these manuals, urban gentlefolk who might be expected to own the most-up-to-date pendulum clocks (invented in 1659) and watches with seconds hands (developed in the 1690s) that were available from London dealers.7 But while such artificial devices could help beginners regulate their playing, it was also recognized (e.g. by Thomas Mace, Roger North) that they were unsuited to more advanced playing techniques. 

2.2 Another distinctive feature of English theory during this period is the comparatively early development of harmonically conceived musical rules. Campion's comparison of the four vocal parts with the elements—predicated on an organizational system based on two modes differentiated by the third—was a landmark in English theory. Tellingly, however, this pragmatic conception of "harmony"—again geared more to instruments than voices—was not sufficient in itself to advance the principles of modern tonality among professional musicians. The earliest English theorist to articulate the fundamental nature of the triad was the gentleman amateur Roger North, whose treatise of c. 1728 was completely unknown to his contemporaries and only fully published in the late twentieth century.8 Instead, English theorists were eventually to draw their information on this subject from Rameau's Traité de l'harmonie (1722) and Nouveau Système de musique théorique (1724).

2.3 In sum, it emerges that the characteristically English willingness to "reject the obsolete" and to come up with inventive solutions for teaching musical rudiments stemmed as much from ignorance as understanding. We learn that most of Herissone's authors were poorly informed about hexachords, which may have been one reason why the four syllable system of solmization was taken up so readily, and uniquely, in England. Lacking any indigenous sixteenth-century writings about the modes, even composers like Morley wrote about them in a way which suggests they were rapidly becoming obsolete in England. Yet as Joel Lester has notably pointed out, there was nothing intrinsically "outmoded" about modes as such, which in Germany, for example, continued to provide a meaningful framework for the composition of modern music into the eighteenth century.9 The "progressive" and empirical nature of seventeenth-century English music theory was bought at a considerable price: the virtual destruction of elite musical training that occurred with the dissolution of the monasteries, a loss further compounded with the closure of the cathedrals during the Interregnum. As a consequence of these political events, England had no institutional framework in which the writing of systematic music theory—always a leisure activity, rather than an actual requirement of anyone employed as a musician—could flourish. Indeed, the greatest systematizers of music theory in the seventeenth century, Mersenne (a Minim) and Kircher (a Jesuit) were members of Catholic holy orders whose foundations could support their scholarship. Instead, most texts published by the "theorists" who appear in this book were geared towards non-expert vernacular readers, the principal market for which the London book trade catered. 

3. Evaluation

3.1 Herissone has provided a useful account of the transformation that took place in English music theory during the seventeenth century, a period which "saw theory brought closer to actual practice than it had been for some considerable time" (p. 225). Her argument is framed within a discipline whose research agenda is still defined by Hugo Riemann's teleological account of the rise of modern harmonic tonality. Like most of the people who will read this book, Herissone takes for granted (i) that "music theory" is a body of knowledge about music's structure and nature that is generated chiefly for and by composers and musicians, and (ii) that the term "music theorist" can be used unproblematically for anyone who contributes to this body of knowledge, regardless of their actual occupational or social identity. These assumptions unnecessarily constrain what can be said about these texts, which were written by authors from a variety of different backgrounds. I hope that Herissone will go on to tell us more about their relevance to the social history of music, about which she obviously knows a great deal.


*Penelope Gouk (gouk@man.ac.uk) is a Senior Wellcome Researcher in the History of Medicine at the University of Manchester. She has wide-ranging interests in European intellectual and material culture, and is currently studying the history of musical healing and the use of musical models in medical and scientific thought. Her most recent publications include Music, Science and Natural Magic in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) [reviewed in this Journal: <http://www.sscm-jscm.org/v6/no2/christensen.html>] and an edited volume on Musical Healing in Cultural Contexts (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000).


1. Rebecca Herissone, "The Theory and Practice of Composition in the English Restoration Period" (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1996).

2. Lillian M. Ruff, "The Seventeenth-Century English Music Theorists" (Ph.D. diss., Nottingham University, 1962); Lois F. Chenette, "Music Theory in the British Isles during the Enlightenment" (Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1967); Barry Cooper, "Englische Musiktheorie im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert" in Entstehung nationaler Traditionen: Frankreich-England, edited by Wilhelm Seidel and Barry Cooper (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1986), 145–329.

3. Popular examples of these include John Playford, A Briefe Introduction to the Skill of Musicke. London (1654), Christopher Simpson, The Principles of Practical Musick (1665).

4. Examples of works in this category include William Brouncker's (anonymous) translation of Descartes's Compendium of Music (1653), Thomas Mace's Musick's Monument (1676), and Roger North's Cursory Notes of Musike (c.1698c. 1703): A Physical, Psychological and Critical Theory, edited by Mary Chan and Jamie C. Kassler (Kensington, NSW: Unisearch, 1986).

5. Herissone notes on p. ix that "Further coverage seems unwarranted here because such issues belong properly to a discpline separate from the main focus of the book—one which, indeed, is a principal subject of a recent publication by Penelope Gouk, Music, Science and Natural Magic in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999)." She does not draw attention to my argument that the meanings associated with the words "music" and "science" today are very different from seventeenth-century understandings, and therefore what is meant by the "science of music" has correspondingly altered.

6. For in-depth discussions, see Chenette "Music Theory"; Penelope Gouk, "Music in the Natural Philosophy of the Early Royal Society" (Ph.D. diss., London University, 1982); and Mark Lindley, Lutes, Viols and Temperaments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

7. A classic introduction to the technologies of time-keeping and their impact on European culture is David S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983). On the clock- and watch-making trade in London, which by the eighteenth century had became one of the largest centers of precision instrument making in Europe, see Michael A. Crawforth, "Instrument Makers in the London Guilds," Annals of Science 44 (1987), 319–77; Gloria C. Clifton, Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers, 15501851 (London: Zwemmer in association with the National Maritime Museum 1995); and Gerard L'Estrange Turner, Elizabethan Instrument Makers: The Origins of the London Trade in Precision Instrument Making (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000).

8. Mary Chan, and Jamie C. Kassler, eds. Roger North's the Musicall Grammarian 1728 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

9. Joel Lester, Between Modes and Keys: German Theory 15921802 (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1989).

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