So I say:
Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing;
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing.
Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty:
What would life be?
Without a song or a dance what are we?
So I say: thank you for the music,
For giving it to me.
I know that you’ve all been dying to hear about my very exciting winter project. First of all, I should tell you that it’s not JUST my project. I have the great privilege of working together with my good friend, colleague and now fellow bloggess, Jess. Our project came about through hours of brainstorming on quiet days in the Village, dinner dates, countless texts, emails and phone calls, and (although I think this goes without saying) big piles of general, all-around awesomeness. So, thank you Jess for your eternal patience, for encouraging excellence and being a fantastic sounding board. You are brilliant. Here we are in our civvies, looking suitably professional.
Jess and I both love music. Lots of music, in every genre. Well, most genres. We also love being Pilgrims. What better way could there be for us to while away the winter months than combining these two things? We have been given the (undeniably huge) task of revisiting, researching and revitalising the way we use music in our exhibit.
When talking about music of the early modern period, it’s common to divide it up into two distinct groups. sacred music, which in post-Elizabethan, Protestant England tends to refer to the setting of the liturgy and the singing of metrical Psalms, and secular music, which can range anywhere from the madrigals of Thomas Morley, to the courtly consort music of Orlando Gibbons or William Byrd, to bawdy Broadside Ballads. What we are ultimately trying to do is to get a better idea of the kinds of music that ordinary people of England would have known when they first set foot here in Plymouth. I could hazard a guess that most people reading this could hum the melody to Hey Jude or recognise Sweet Home, Alabama just from hearing the introduction. Beyoncé is a household name, especially after last week’s spectacular (IMHO) Super Bowl performance. Love it or hate it, these songs are a part of our musical cultural literacy. We, in the modern age of recording have incredible opportunities to hear seminal performances of music that would otherwise be lost to the moment in which they were perfomed. I can go home tonight and hear Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra playing Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. After that, I can listen to John Coltrane playing “live” at the Village Vanguard. Then, if I want to, I can rock out on my air guitar to Eric Clapton’s Layla right there in my living room. Eclectic? Maybe. I’m a tea drinker, what can I say? There may be an ongoing discussion in musical circles concerning the demise of live music, but to a turn of the (17th) century English person, live music is all there is. Not only that, but there’s no television, no cinema, no internet (shock, horror!). When you visit a tavern, there are no dart boards or pool tables, no trivia nights, no juke box. Well, no juke box except for the guy who has had one or two more beers than you and starts up the singing! Then, the music you knew was the music you heard at church, at home, out on the street, at a play, a fair or in a tavern. And, the ordinariness of this music is just that. Ordinary. Excellently ordinary.
In our Plymouth primary sources, there are no references to the sorts of secular music people would have known or sung. This means that we will be casting our long-term research nets far and wide to trace down appropriate secondary sources on the music of common people in our time period. However, we here at Plimoth Plantation like to start with what we do know. You may recall my post late last year on Henry Ainsworth’s Book of Psalmes. If you don’t recall it, you can read it now if you like. Anyway, what we do know is that the highly reformed church in Plymouth used this, Henry Ainsworth’s settings of the Psalms, in their worship from their arrival here in 1620 until 1685 when they voted to follow the rest of Massachusetts in adapting the Bay Psalm Book. We have a couple of very useful reproduction copies of the Ainsworth psalter made by our incredibly multi-talented curator/potter/book-binder/maker-of-many-other-things, Martha Sulya. Of course, any reproduction has to be based on an original. In this case, the 1612 original is in the collection at Pilgrim Hall Museum, right here in Plymouth and is part of their permanent exhibit. “How convenient!” I hear you cry. So, we paid a visit to Stephen O’Neill, Associate Director and Curator of Pilgrim Hall who kindly opened up the display case and let us play away to our hearts’ content. This particular copy was bequeathed to the museum as part of a personal collection of historic books. Unfortunately, we don’t know who it belonged to before it was collected, or exactly when it arrived in Plymouth, but I like to think (it’s complete supposition, mind you) that it was, at some time or other, handled by some of the first settlers here. It is in remarkably good condition though, so I find it difficult to imagine that this particular book was used on a regular basis.
Here’s Jess, preparing to touch a 400 year old book for the first time.
I try recreating a Dutch Masters painting. Girl with old book, laptop and lamp, anyone??
And we carefully turned page after page…looking at minute details, getting excited about and generally appreciating this wonderful text.
Now, you might be wondering exactly WHY we’re doing this. Well, we know for sure that the Pilgrims sang these Psalms. Therefore, we, as interpreters of the history of early Plymouth Colony, ought to know them well, too. In another week or so, Jess and I will have transcribed the 48 melodies and 150 Psalms contained in this psalter in their entirety into modern, digital form. This will then be uploaded to an online, searchable database which our staff can access as and when they need to. It’s going to have downloadable MP3s too! It sounds straight forward enough, but a task like this certainly has its frustrations.
A List Of Things That Make Us Do This:
1) He, or Be?
In this font, the lower case “h” and lower case “b” are so close to one another, we have to look twice.
He, or be, you tell me….
2) Soul, or Fowl?
Printed text in the 17th-century In these two extracts, look for the word that looks like fowl, or fowls. The first one refers to “their fowls-appitite”…are there hungry birds around? No, I think this particular Psalm is speaking metaphorically of the hunger of our soul. The Psalm on the right speaks of “feth’red fowl”. Does my soul have feathers? I don’t think so. That’s a chicken.
3) Mythical Creatures
I know we all like to think that unicorns and dragons are real…But nowadays, the beast in Psalm 22 is more commonly translated as wild oxen, and Psalm 74′s dragon has become a more generic, although no less frightening, sea monster.
4) Mystery Note Heads
In a land of movable C-clefs and diamond-headed whole- and half-notes, can anyone shed any light on the notes associated with “name” on the first line and “re-ceiv” on the second?! I’m assuming printer error until I can be proven otherwise!
5) Pecurliarly-Ainsworthian Phraseology
Ainsworth is nothing if not devoted to accuracy in his translation of the Psalms. However, when it comes to setting them in a singable metre, I think I can confidently say that he takes some liberties. Psalm 18, for example. In his own translation in the first column, he writes “…And the channels of waters, were seen; and the foundations of the world, were reveled: at thy rebuke Jehovah; at the breath, of the wind of thine anger.” In order to set this to the irregular metre of the melody assigned to this Psalm, he writes as follows:
“And channels of the waters were beheld; the worlds foundations, were eke reveald: At thy rebuke Jehovah; at the blast, of wind that from thy wrathful-nosthril past.”
To be fair to Ainsworth though, I should clarify that there are plenty of other translations of this Psalm that do refer to the olfactory organ of God himself, but they tend rather towards the blast of the breath of his nostrils, rather than the nostrils themselves being angry.
6) Delightful Seventeenth-Century Spellynge
Check this out:
Where do I start? “I before E, except after C”? Faythlesnes/Faithlessness. Styrrd/Stirred. Hye/High. Gealousye?! Lucky for Master Ainsworth, I find his spelling endearing. If I were a little less enamoured by the seventeenth-century though, I can tell you that the spelling would drive me crazy quicker than you can say “oil of marjoram”.
All this being said, we are really looking forward to sharing what we’ve discovered first with our fellow interpreters in training, and then with our museum visitors. There will be some new (to us) Psalms being sung in the Village this season, as well as more musical events like our Valentine’s Day spectacular. In the future, we’ll be giving this same treatment to some Church of England Psalms, and investigating further the secular music of the period in order to enable us, as an exhibit, to create an even more accurate soundscape. So, please feel free to expect more blog posts on music – they’re on their way!
Do you have an interest in Ainsworth’s Psalms? Are you expert (or not-so-expert) in the music of early modern England? Do you play the lute, or the cittern or the virginal? We’d love to hear from you, share knowledge and resources, or begin a discussion!