Living History & Reenactment Music


Musical Rambles Through History by Sara L. Johnson ©1997


Masques were entertainments and pageants staged in the royal courts for state occasions and royal weddings. They were put together by professional musicians, poets, dancers and organizers, but the amateur actors were often members of court disguised as " heroes of antiquity", nymphs, shepherds and assorted deities. However, masques frequently did not come off quite as planned, due to problems with the "actors". One such event was described by Sir John Harington, when James I's brother-in-law, the alcoholic Danish king Christian IV, visited England in 1606. It might also be described as Drinking Habits of the Rich and Famous:

"One day a great feast was held, and after dinner the representations of Solomon his Temple and the coming of the Queen of Sheba was made, or, as I may better say, was meant to have been made, before their Majesties. ..But alas! as all earthly things do fail to poor mortals....The lady who did play the Queen's part did carry most precious gifts to both their Majesties; but forgetting the steppes arising to the canopy, overset her caskets into his Danish Majesties lap, and fell at his feet, tho I rather think it was in his face. Much was the hurry and confusion; cloths and napkins were at hand to make all clean.

"His Majesty then got up and would dance with the Queen of Sheba, but he fell down and humbled himself before her, and was carried to an inner chamber and laid on a bed of state; which was not a little defiled with the presents of the Queen which had been bestowed on his garments; such as wine, cream, jelly, beverage, cakes, spice and other good matters. The entertainment and shew went forward and most of the presenters went backward, or fell down, wine did so occupy their upper chambers.

"Now appear in rich dress, Hope, Faith and Charity; Hope did assay to speak, but wine rendered her endeavors so feeble that she withdrew...Faith...left the Court in a staggering condition. Charity....then returned to Hope and Faith, who were both sick and spewing in the lower hall. Next came Victory, in bright armour..but Victory did not tryumph very long, for, after much lamentable utterance, she was led away like a silly captive and laid to sleep in the outer steps of the anti-chamber. Now did Peace make entry...but much contrary to her own semblance, most rudely made war with her olive branches, and laid on the pates of those who did oppose her coming.

"I have much marvelled at these strange pageantries...but I neer did see such lack of good order, discretion and sobriety, as I have now done...."

The masques also featured court musicians, dancers, elaborate costumes, sets, and scenery that moved by means of complicated machinery. Often the guests wanted to see all the gadgetry before hand, which resulted in it not working by the time of the performance. One of Francis Bacon's masques for the royal wedding in 1612 of King James' daughter resulted in a fireworks display exploding and injuring the spectators. And it might be added, some of the audience were bored to death by the excessively lengthy productions. King James announced before one masque that he would not stay for it, but "they must bury him quick, for he could last no longer" and was going home to bed. Eventually, the masque was staged for him, and he enjoyed the 'statue scene' so much, he asked to have it repeated, "but one of the statues by that time was undressed."

Very little of the music for the masques has survived, but we still have lists of some of the instruments employed, and the bills for the musicians' services. (As any father, marrying off a daughter, knows, the wedding bells are over but the wedding bills linger on.) They included "ten Musitions, with Basse and Meane lutes, a bandora, double Sackbott, and an Harpsichord, with two treble Violins" and also "9 Violins and three Lutes", both answered by a consort of "sixe Cornets, and sixe Chappel voyces."

This information comes from Christopher Hogwood's book Music at Court, written for the Folio Society, London, 1977.

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