A city of spires and slums, of palaces and paupers, of Towers and treason; London during the 16th and 17th centuries was one of the most colourful and prosperous centres of commerce in Europe. A rapidly growing city of 75000 residents, with accompanying noise and smells, the population density inside the city walls had reached levels unheard of in today’s developed countries, contributing to a great throng of people of all classes and trades. The destruction of Antwerp by the Spanish in 1572 gave London pride of place amongst the North Sea ports. The London markets were full of imports and immigrants from all over Britain and Europe, each trying to outsell their neighbour using the only marketing tool available: their voices. It is in these markets that we begin our whistlestop tour of London’s streets.
John Cobb was an organist and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. His exact dates are unknown, but he was active in the service of the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1635. It is not known whether he wrote this four-part round to introduce Gibbons’ Fantasia which follows, but Gibbons was organist at the Chapel from 1623 till his death, so there may be a connection.
Many markets took place on the outskirts of the city; Covent Garden was a farmers market during the Tudor period. In conditions that were unsanitary and with the threat of poverty ever present, the entrepreneurial spirit of many London residents resulted in hundreds of traders selling everything under the sun. Their cries fascinated many composers of the time. This setting by Orlando Gibbons (1583 – 1625) is a particularly deft melding of market seller tunes with ‘In Nomine’, an immensely popular plainchant used as the basis of hundreds of compositions. Split into two parts, the Cryes begin and end with the announcements of the Watchman, and contain references to all kinds of fish, fruit, vegetables, pies, alcohol, household goods, services, and beggars.
Gibbons was a prolific and talented madrigalist; ‘The Silver Swan’ plays on the ancient myth of the swan song – the single, beautiful utterance at the moment of its death. It is also a lament for the age of musical flourishing brought to an end by the Calvinist Stuart dynasty. Another Gibbons madrigal, ‘What is our Life’ sets a very different tone, the text was written by Sir Walter Raleigh during the grim period he spent in a London landmark which survives today: The Tower.
Is this the very same Tower that Thomas Tomkins (1572 – 1656) decries in ‘Adieu, ye city pris’ning towers’? Certainly, Tomkins seems to paint a much more attractive picture of the surrounding countryside. Another Gentleman of the Chapel, Tomkins’ conservative writing style nevertheless proved popular. Travelling often between Worcester, where he was organist, and London, would have given him ample opportunity to leave the choking atmosphere of the city.
Moving West of London, to the Royal Courts at Westminster, Whitehall and St. James’s Palace, brings us to the music of Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695). Purcell enjoyed great favour with the Kings he served, and composed many Odes and Coronation Anthems for the royal family. He held the post of organist at Westminster Cathedral and the Chapel Royal simultaneously. ‘I was glad’ is a setting of Psalm 122 written for the coronation of James II.
In addition to his sacred work, two short catches by Purcell, as well as a selection of rounds and short songs by other composers illustrate some of the more everyday aspects of London life. Isaac’s short catch describes the practices of the men who worked on the banks of the Thames, London’s lifeblood. Thomas Arne (1710 – 1778), a much later composer, sets several of the London cries in another short round, showing how little these cries changed since the days of Gibbons; Ravenscroft (1592 – 1635), one of the foremost composers of rounds and catches of his day (and writer of the tune ‘Three Blind Mice’) is here represented in a drinking song, ‘Toss the Pot’, which along with Purcell’s bawdy ‘The Nut-Brown Lass’, might be heard in the ale-houses and brothels of Southwark.