A Riddle Like The Cause

English chamber music in a time of treasons, stratagems and spoils.

A wood-cut from The Confession Of Richard Brandon, executioner of Charles I, 1649.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.

Shakespeare, The Merchant Of Venice

In 1597, the composer Thomas Morley wrote in A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musick that ‘the most principal and chiefest’ kind of instrumental music was the ‘fantasy’. This he defined as follows:

When a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shall seem best in his own conceit. 

It might seem strange that so seemingly casual a description could be something ‘most principal and chiefest’. Yet the fantasy – or ‘fancy’ as it was also known – was a key force in an enormously fertile period for the cultivation of chamber music in England. It flourished into the second half of the 17th century, through one of the most troubled periods of English history – the Civil War.

Morley was a contemporary of Shakespeare who set his words to music. And it is through the Bard that we can shed light on the free aesthetic of the fantasy. As Erin Minear has noted, Morley’s definition resembles the titles of As You Like It and What You Will. She suggests that the Elizabethan notion of ‘fancy’ shares a Shakespearean ideal of ‘inventive and imaginative play’.

This was a golden age for English composition, and it is striking how often the worlds of words and music intertwined. Alongside the fantasy, a popular instrumental form was the In Nomine. This set the challenge of weaving counterpoint around a cantus firmus – a specific fragment from a choral mass setting by John Taverner from the 1520s.

Madrigals, with their expressive word-painting, were often played on viols too. The Italian repertoire was particularly influential in England – in his guide, Morley found space to complain of ‘our countrymen who will highly esteem whatsoever cometh from beyond the seas (and specially from Italy) be it never so simple, condemning that which is done at home though it be never so excellent’.

Such was the vogue for all things Italian, the composer John Cooper changed his name to the affectation ‘Coprario’. In the 1620s, it was he who began a tradition of putting a fantasy at the head of suites, followed by two dance movements. Other composers soon followed his lead.

Although the viol was a popular instrument with the Elizabethans, the violin gradually started to replace it in the 17th century, and the two would often coexist in ensembles. The organ and theorbo were frequently included too.

Christopher D. S. Field has argued that the gestures and structures of fantasia-suites can be compared to contemporary ideas about rhetoric. ‘As part of the trivium’, he writes, ‘rhetoric was a staple ingredient of education, and the habits it inculcated permeated intellectual thought’. He also suggests that Coprario’s three-movement suite structure may have been intended to imitate the formula of Exordium – Medium – Finis, described by German theorists of oration and music as musica poetica.

But while the music of Shakespeare’s day is rightly celebrated, the decades between leading up the arrival of Purcell under Charles II are a shadowy, less familiar terrain in English music history. The story of the music in these turbulent times is a complex and intriguing one, in which consort music would play an important role.

‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ by William Frederick Yeames.

In the 1640s, the outbreak of war and increasing Puritan influence in parliament took its toll on the arts. Theatres – including the ‘great Globe itself’ – were shut down. Meanwhile the new policy for church services was the simple ‘singing of psalms together in the congregation’. The choral tradition which had blossomed so gloriously in cathedrals through the preceding century was ordered to fall silent. Organs were broken up.

And inevitably, the human cost of war was enormous. William Lawes was a musician for Charles I, and during his reign he became a leading composer of consort music. Among his works are set of suites with the striking addition of a harp. Lawes fought with the Royalist forces, and during the siege of Chester in 1645, he was fatally shot.

Dead at age 43, Lawes was mourned as a tragic loss to English music – although his brother Henry, also a composer, would go on to live into the Restoration. But wherever music died, poetry paid its respects. Thomas Jordan composed an ‘urn epitaph’, making wordplay on the politics of the time.

Concord is conquer’d: In this Urne there lies
The Master of great Musick’s mysteries,
And in it is a riddle like the cause:
Will. Lawes was slain by such whose wills were laws.

With the Parliamentarians victorious, on 30th January 1649 came one of the most extraordinary moments in English history. King Charles I was beheaded in Whitehall, and England became a Commonwealth. Shortly after, a 76 year old composer called Thomas Tomkins sat down and composed a Sad Pavan For These Distracted Times. 

Tomkins had worked in music since the days of Elizabeth I, both in the Chapel Royal and at Worcester Cathedral – a city which had suffered two punishing sieges. His pavan is a poignant example of the consolation of chamber music in what must have seemed a time of great uncertainty and senseless destruction. Tomkins died in 1656 at the grand old age of 84, though it was sadly too soon to see the Restoration, nor to hear choral polyphony echoing through the cloisters once again.


Victorious sounds! yet here your Homage do
Unto a gentler Conqueror than you;
Who though He flies the Musick of his praise,
Would with you Heavens Hallelujahs raise.

Andrew Marvell, Musicks Empire

The Cromwellian period has an austere reputation. But Andrew Marvell’s poem Musicks Empire illustrates something of the prestige music still carried, and its continuing intermingling with literature. Cromwell himself employed musicians who would entertain for visiting dignitaries, including John Hingeston, who composed fantasies for an unusual combination of cornett, sackbut and organ.

In private spheres, music making still flourished. John Jenkins was one composer who made a prolific contribution during in this period. Much of his work tends towards a kind of flowing serenity, as if a sanctuary from the tumult of politics and war – though he composed a notable pavan and galliard depicting the siege of Newark.

The younger Matthew Locke was also writing for consorts. His music has delightful expressive and dramatic flair, with arresting rhythms and bold harmonic movement, that would go on to influence the young Purcell.

In some ways, the upheavals of the period proved an unexpected catalyst to music. The removal of royal monopolies enabled entrepreneurial spirit to emerge in the industry of publishing. John Playford’s English Dancing Master, a collection of tunes with instructions for each dance, first appeared in 1651 and was enormously successful.

A woodcut that appeared in Playford prints in the 1650s.

Furthermore, the censorship of playhouses gave impetus to any dramatic form with a pretext of musical performance. And so in this period came productions generally regarded as the first English operas. The Siege of Rhodes, ‘sung in Recitative Musick’, was put on by William Davenant in a room in his own house, a remarkable fact given he was a staunch Royalist who had fled the country and been imprisoned. The score has not survived, but it was a collaborative effort whose composers included Henry Lawes.

Clearly, England remained a considerably musical place. But Musicks Empire, with its ‘harmonious colonies’, alludes to another continuing thread – imperial expansion. Cromwell remains infamous for his brutal campaign in Ireland. Under his rule England gained control of Jamaica, whose sugar plantations would become a key part of the transatlantic slave trade. Music was not immune to imperialist propaganda either – a subsequent Davenant production from this period was called, with little subtlety, The Cruelty Of The Spaniards In Peru. Locke composed the score.

Cromwell At Dunbar, by Andrew Carrick Gow.

The Cromwellian period fascinates us partly because it is an aberration in a history we measure in monarchs. But it is also because revolutions open possibilities of what might be – and in doing so, suggest what still could be. Some of the movements that emerged around this time, such as the Levellers and the Diggers, envisioned a society built on radically more egalitarian lines, and have continued to inspire progressive thinkers.

History teases us with ‘what-ifs’. Had Cromwell lived longer, or had the future Charles II not made his near-miraculous escape after the Battle of Worcester, might Britain be a republic today? Of course, we will never know.

And yet on a musical note, one obscure document gives pause for thought. In 1657 a petition was put to the Council of State for a ‘Corporacion or Colledge of Musicians’ to be built in London, with Hingeston one of the signatories. Nothing came of the request. Given that the Royal Academy of Music would not be founded until 1822, it is tantalising to think how differently English music history might have turned out, had it been approved.


Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.

George Herbert, Vertue

Having fled to the continent, Charles II had developed a taste for French music when he returned to England at the Restoration. In November 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded a scene in which the new King ‘bade the French musique play, which, my Lord says, do much outdo all ours’.

Fashions were changing, and while the fantasy persisted for a while, its Shakespearean salad days had passed. As soon as 1667, Christopher Simpson would write that the form was now ‘much neglected by reason of the scarcity of auditors that understand it, their ears being better acquainted and more delighted with light and airy music’.

For this reason, it is something of a mystery as to why the young Henry Purcell composed a number of fantasies and In Nomines around 1680. Unpublished in his lifetime, they lay in the obscurity of manuscripts until the 20th century.

What is certain is that, through contrapuntal ingenuity and intensely concentrated expression, Purcell showed how much these forms could still do. He evidently relished the challenge of restriction – besides two In Nomines, he took the extraordinary step of composing a fantasy ‘Upon One Note’, in which one part plays a single C throughout.

And yet in his radiant seven-part In Nomine, there is a modal darkness that seems consciously antiquated. Its strikingly ghostly ending leaves us without the harmonious third of the triad. Even as Purcell was mastering this tradition – a direct link to the pre-Reformation England of Henry VIII – he seemed to be etching it into an intricate death mask.

Perhaps sensing the way the wind was blowing, Purcell instead opted to publish a set of trio sonatas. In these, he proclaimed, he had ‘faithfully endeavour’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian Masters’. Morley would wresteth and turneth in his grave.

But the spirit of the fantasy would have a far-flung afterlife. In the early 20th century, a wealthy philanthropist called Walter Willson Cobbett instituted competitions for British composers to write in a modern version of the form. His aspiration was to foster a culture of domestic music making through the creation of shorter chamber works – the kind of culture that had thrived among the educated classes of the 17th century.

And in the late 1980s, over three centuries after their composition, Purcell’s fantasias were a revelation for the young composer George Benjamin. ‘The combination of concentrated counterpoint with a harmonic, beguiling sensitivity immediately captivated me,’ he said. ‘The discovery of these pieces quite simply changed the way I perceived – and wrote – music.’

One reason that the fantasy form continues to intrigue and inspire is surely its openness. Morley wrote that ‘in this may more art be shown than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing’. It makes explicit the inherent puzzle of instrumental composition – what, and how, do you make sense out of pure sound?

The fantasy throws down a gauntlet: it invites us to conquer ‘great Musick’s mysteries’. No wonder, then, that the worlds of song, drama, and rhetoric beg to be let in to play along with this little game. It is the very riddle in the composer’s cause.

Did you know that England’s first coffee houses were established in the 1650s? All my blog posts are powered by caffeine, and a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal. Cromwell would surely approve.