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  • Music and Society in Early Modern England by Christopher Marsh
  • Dolly MacKinnon
Marsh, Christopher , Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010; hardback; pp. 624; 58 b/w illustrations, audio CD; R.R.P. £65.00; ISBN 9780521898324.

Innovation in a research publication is something that is all too rare. Christopher Marsh's Music and Society in Early Modern England is one such text, and one of a number of recent texts that has challenged traditional scholarship. Marsh moves the reader and listener beyond the traditional silent depictions of the early modern world by demonstrating not only how music can be heard, but also why it is important for us to hear it. Marsh analyses the place of music in early modern England and gives us an ample volume with copies of images, as well as a CD of musical examples performed by the Dufay Collective and the bell ringers of St Bartholomew the Great in London. Marsh's work typifies the bounty to be found in interdisciplinary scholarship by ably demonstrating why scholars must shake off the shackles of the single, narrow disciplinary furrow. This work is a testament to Marsh's ongoing research, scholarship, musicianship, and musical performances over many years: it could not have been written by a musicologist nor would it have been written by most historians. Music and Society hinges on the centrality of the performative aspects of music to aspects of early modern life, and analyses music's role in its many and varied forms in the households, inns, and open spaces of parish society.

Through a detailed critique of the diverse surviving evidence of early modern music - its words, sounds, performances, and depictions - Marsh charts the political, religious, national, sectarian, and secular functions of music in early modern society. Here is the music of everyday life, instead of the music of just the church or court. Marsh highlights the longevity of tunes and texts in early modern society, demonstrating, through musical biographies of specific compositions, how these sounds stayed in the minds and memories of players and audiences. The vitality of music lies in its ongoing ability to be made audible through the mouths of singers or the active fingers of instrumentalists. What is clear is that the households of early modern England could be alive with the sounds of bawdy ballads or pious psalms, and that early modern sociability - be it driven by sacred or secular motivations - found expression in musical performances. For example, 'The London Tavern' scene (c. 1690-1700) by Egbert Van Heemslerck that appears on the dust cover pays tribute to this vibrant and noisy early modern reality for the women, men, and children depicted. [End Page 278]

Marsh is able to cover the significance of music in early modern society by tackling the key features that unite the vast archive that he has consulted, and much of which he has also performed. He analyses the popular beliefs governing the power of music in the early modern world in order to set the context for the significance of music in everyday life. He then analyses music as a viable occupation within society. Here our focus is firmly on the majority of the early modern population that inhabited the inns, taverns, churchyards, streets, and fields of urban and rural parishes. We are able to sense the toe-tapping reality of early modern society, and experience a sense of the dancing bodies to be found both indoors and out. Marsh also voices the pleasure, as well as disdain, that early modern contemporaries recorded about music and their musical experiences. Personal musical tastes survive in the copious ballads, ongoing traditional musical rituals, and the sounding bells that governed both life and death. Early modern music is the political and pious litmus test of parish society. Post-Reformation religious tensions in England constantly reworked the nature and moral purpose of music in society. Sectarian allegiances were sounded by the types of music performed within urban and rural households and parishes. Holding out against music's power were those households that demonstrated their dislike through their intentional and resolute performances of...


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pp. 278-279
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