Some Other Note: The Lost Songs of English Renaissance Comedy, by Ross W. Duffin

Rediscovering long-forgotten music from plays requires some imagination, finds John Jowett

July 12, 2018
Old music score
Source: iStock

Crammed with many hundreds of scores, Ross W. Duffin’s Some Other Note is an impressively voluminous reminder of the rich musical texture of early modern drama. He confines the task to comedies, with some odd inclusions, and ranges in period from the late medieval mystery plays to the works of John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, stopping at 1625, well short of the closing of the theatres in 1642. He includes jigs (comic musical episodes performed after the end of a play) but not court masques or civic entertainments. The grouping of plays is primarily by dramatist, although Duffin’s earlier Shakespeare’s Songbook (2004) deprives the current project of the foremost dramatist of them all.

The problem that Duffin addresses is that the surviving manuscripts and printings of plays rarely supply musical scores. In his attempt to locate this music, he foregrounds his own role: “If I thought it was likely to have been intended as the music for this song, I would have attempted a corrected version of the counterpoint.” He explains his methods in the following terms. The early modern theatres rarely commissioned new music for their plays, but instead repurposed existing music (a debatable claim). Therefore, by careful detective work, the “lost” musical settings of songs from plays can be rediscovered in different guises among the surviving scores of the period’s music. The rhythmic and stanzaic patterns of the words are often matched by surprisingly few extant scores, and therefore it becomes possible to deduce a solution.

The key phrase here is “in different guises”. The easier but rarer case is illustrated by “Orpheus I am, come from the depths below” in Fletcher’s The Mad Lover. The setting survives in three manuscripts, and so the establishment of the song and accompaniment as performed on stage is a standard kind of editorial task. More typically, Duffin has to make an informed leap in order to associate words and music that have no explicit connection. Hence, typically, “The versification is unusual…However, with a repetition of the sixth line, it works well to the tune Troy Town”. “Works well” is good enough, because at least we now have a score.

Without accompaniment or tempo markings, these scores offer little indication of the song’s mood or dramatic effect, and Duffin offers little comment. Plays vary in their soundscapes, from the acoustically bare The Phoenix to the semi-operatic Antonio and Mellida, both performed by boys who were choristers as much as they were actors. This too attracts only passing comment, as does the overall treatment of music by a particular dramatist, and the different complexions of soundscape between one company or performance space and another.

In his pursuit of “lost” music as an end in itself, Duffin combines the deep knowledge and level-headedness of the scholar with the single-minded enthusiasm of the hobbyist. His tuneful somethings will be far better than nothing, for instance, to performers willing to compose an accompaniment to the song line, or investigate the accompanying website for source material. Yet the book needs careful reading to distinguish between widely varying levels of plausibility, and remains haunted by the first two words that Duffin writes (quoted from his earlier critics): “Mere guesswork”.

John Jowett is deputy director of the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.

Some Other Note: The Lost Songs of English Renaissance Comedy
By Ross W. Duffin
Oxford University Press
760pp, £32.99
ISBN 9780190856601
Published 29 March 2018


Print headline: Mystery melody to set the scene

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Reader's comments (1)

As the author of this book, I thank Prof. Jowett for the attention he has drawn to it. I’m sorry he finds shortcomings, and wishes I had provided things that I did not provide, like accompaniments to the songs and more background (though 760 pp. for £33 seems like a good deal). I should perhaps be satisfied that he finds my reconstructions "far better than nothing," but I feel the review does not really do justice to the book. Indeed, I do expect a careful reading, which he cautions is necessary to sort out the level of plausibility of the settings. But since the book contains about 600 musical settings, is he saying that half of them are less plausible? a third? So, in the rest of the cases, is he satisfied that I have identified plausible musical settings for 300 or 400 play songs that did not exist before? Even that seems like a fair number of song settings worthy of the attention of scholars, actors, directors, and musicians. And while Prof. Jowett attributes his parting comment about "mere guesswork” to my own critics, a more careful reading would have shown that it did not come from my critics at all. It was a good line, though.