A Study Of Historical Music: Part 3 of 3

Part 3 of 3

In the 1st installment (1) of this blog, I talked a little about the kind of music we usually associate with performances of Shakespeare’s plays. Pigeon Creek often uses adaptations of familiar pop songs whose lyrics are topical to the play being performed, as pre-show and intermission entertainment, and I talked too, about how the music within the play – specifically the songs in the text – are just as important as costumes or scenic elements in setting the tone of the performance, and I noted that while Shakespeare’s lyrics have come down to us, the music they were originally set to has not.

In the 2nd installment (2), I talked a little about songs and song-fragments that appear in the text that were actual published works at the time and would have been familiar to Shakespeare and his audiences; and I looked at some of the songs whose lyrics appear in Shakespeare’s texts and some of the settings that were published (mostly after Shakespeare’s time…) and wondered if those published pieces reflected how the song was performed when the plays originally made their appearances on stage, or if they were new settings of Shakespeare’s already well-known lyrics.

Now – let’s dig into an area that holds a special curiosity for me…

Most European polyphonic music since the late middle ages can be thought of as a melody line and a harmonic sub-structure. In its simplest form this might be a voice singing a melody and a plucked string or another voice singing a single note or “drone” that never changes. Some of the earliest French polyphony in the church was a chanter (melody – think Gregorian chant) and a second voice (the basse) singing a series of different notes that created a rich variety of rhythmic and harmonic textures, and this is the music that eventually evolved into the surpassing beauty created by the church’s greatest Renaissance composers – Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, Byrd, and their heirs like Bach and Mozart.

But we’re more interested here in what might be thought of as early modern “pop” music – especially music that might have been familiar to Shakespeare and his audiences in the latter decades of the 16th century.

One of the musical forms that apparently was quite the rage was the “catch” – or round. It’s easy to see why the catch was so popular – the tunes and lyrics were typically very simple and could be performed with or without instruments, pretty much wherever there were two or more people. Catches could employ harmonic progressions of only one or two chords, changing only once or twice, or as often as every beat. The only limit being the composer’s melodic inventiveness and the length of the song. As composers increased the complexity to catches of three, four, or even five or six voices, a myriad of harmonic and rhythmic possibilities arise. Chordal progressions seem to still be limited to three or possibly four chords, such as I-IV-V-I, and variations like I-V-IV-V and sometimes including a vi, VII, or III.

An evolution of the catch is a form that melded the round with the part-song – except that the parts were actually individual songs themselves with their own lyric – each singer could stick to a single “part” or the singers could progress through the different melody lines that made up the song. An example of this is the “Round of Three Country Dances in One” by Thomas Ravenscroft, Pammelia 1603. Here’s another (3) – the Tourdion, credited to Pierre Attaignant in 1530. In that performance, the musicians introduce the melody of the treble voice, “Quand je bois du vin claret” on the lute and then have created an almost raucous, pub-room feel by using viols bowing a drone in the rhythm of the treble line. At first they use only two voices, but eventually give us all four voices together without the distractions of the instruments. This song’s chordal structure is based on i-III-VII(V)-i.

There are a few chord progressions that seem to appear again and again in music written during the latter half of the 16th century. In a piece called, “The Canary” Michael Praetorius uses I-I-IV-V with a couple variations like IV-IV-IV-V and V-I-IV-V. The feel is a delightful major key, and these chords make a number of appearances in other pieces in other combinations like I-V-IV-V which we mentioned earlier.

The other chord progressions that we often see are:

The Passmezzo Antico: i – VII – i – V / i – VII – i – V - i

The Romanesca: III – VII – i – V / III – VII – i – V - i

The Passamezzo Moderno: I – IV – I – V / I- VII – IV – V - I

These progressions appear either by themselves or in combination with each other. The very familiar song “Greensleeves” for example, is the Passamezzo Antico and the Romanesca. (Think, “Alas my love…” & etc. to the Passamezzo Antico, and, “Greensleeves was all my joy…” to the Romanesca.)

The last progression we’ll be talking about is known as the Folia (Folly in latinate languages) which was also know to Englishmen as Faronel’s Ground. Its chord structure looks like this:

Folia: i – V – i – VII / III – VII – i – V / i – V – i – VII / III – VII – i – V – i

As you might guess, these chord structures were mostly innovated by Italian and Spanish musicians and spread around Europe. It might be conjectured that these chord progressions were familiar to almost every trained musician.

Indeed one of the high arts of musicianship (now – as then…) was that of improvisation. Musicians could play a melody written within one of these chordal structures, and then take off on flights of improvisatory scales and rhythmic variations that would amaze and entertain.

I leave you with one last performance along these lines. Jordi Savall (4) is an early music expert who has created performances of renaissance music that must indeed come close to the ravishing musicianship that the best of early modern Europe could produce. Note: The first piece, “Rodrigo Martinez” is a variation on the Folia/Romanesca – its chord structure is based on: i – VII – III / VII – i – V – i. If you listen all the way to the end, you’ll hear Maestro Savall perform similar improvisations on other pieces, some of which use the chord structures we’ve talked about above.

Thanks, and leave us a comment if you liked this topic…!


  1. https://www.pcshakespeare.com/single-post/2017/11/06/Play-On-A-Meditation-on-Music-Part-1-of-3

  2. https://www.pcshakespeare.com/single-post/2018/10/08/On-Music-Part-2-of-3

  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvjuv4IIKcU

  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrO2va4SBlc&list=RDMMGrO2va4SBlc

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