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Music and the English Mystery Plays Jo Anna Dutka The surviving mystery plays of late medieval England con­ tain songs, allusions to music, and directions for its performance, but these have received, for the most part, inadequate notice, since scholars who have dealt with this subject have concerned themselves only with the printed texts, not the original sources.1 Others, remarking that the plays are not sung but spoken, and that they are not musical drama but include music in the drama, have tended to treat the music as merely incidental: that is, as background, as an interruption of the action, or as spectacular device.2 In my view, music in these cycle plays is essential to the production, and it is deliberately included for its dramatic utility as well as its beauty. Moreover, it possesses great interest for the historian concerned with musical tastes and attitudes to music of non-courtly English society in the period from the late fourteenth century, when records of the plays’ production are first found, to the last quarter of the sixteenth, when their final performances took place. As well, the use of this music illustrates most strikingly the historical continuity of English dramatic practice throughout the late Middle Ages. It must not be thought that the mystery plays have left us a substantial body of theatrical music. On the contrary, only nine songs with texts and music have remained as evidence of what was actually performed in the course of a mystery cycle: one from Chester, three from York, each text set twice to different music, and two from Coventry (one of these is the famous “Coventry Carol”).3 From the texts of the four extant mystery cycles and two fragments of cycles, we can, however, add the titles or incipits of a further fifty-one Latin and seven English songs named in stage directions or during the action, as well as thirty-four unnamed pieces of music.4 135 136 Comparative Drama Of the nine surviving songs, all of which seem to have been composed specifically for the plays in which they occur, that from Chester is a brief monophonic setting of the phrase, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”5 The two-part York songs, “Surge proxima mea,” “Veni de libano,” and “Veni electa mea,” use the tech­ nique of gymel with crossing voices in what is essentially a noteagainst -note style. In this they are not dissimilar to other fifteenth-century vocal music and, in addition, incorporate characteristics of both the conductus (score notation, single text, original tenor) and carol (cross-rhythms, gymel, lack of imita­ tion, coincidence of musical and textual phrasing).6 Both Coven­ try songs, “Lully, lulla” and “As I out rode,” are three-part carols; they were added in 1591 to a manuscript dated 1534J Because they are very late in the carol tradition, their free style, especially in the second, which shows points of imitation and voice exchange in the burden, sets them apart from the early medieval strict carol-with-burden form. All but fourteen of the fifty-one Latin songs for which only the textual incipits are given can be located in the English litur­ gical Uses. The non-liturgical texts are from scriptural and nondramatic literary sources. Both the Proper and the Ordinary of the Mass, and all sung parts of the Office provide the liturgical texts, but the antiphons of the Office are most frequently drawn upon. The possible source-melodies supply even more choice. For example, the liturgical tunes can vary for the same text: “Venite benedicti” occurs as two different liturgical types—an antiphon and an introit; the music for each is different.8 “Exultet celum,” a hymn, can have any one of five different melodies.9 This is not to say, of course, that because the texts are litur­ gical, the melodies used in the plays must be so as well; any text could have had a new setting. Indeed, “Veni electa mea,” from the York Weavers’ Play, and the Chester “Gloria,” two of the songs with extant music, are such instances. They appear to be the only existing compositions used as stage music in the mys­ teries to combine...


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