Category Archives: Music

Death Music Woodcut

Axe Murder Woodcut

I just had to share this woodcut. It’s the title page to A true Relation of a barbarous and most Cruell Murther, committed by one Enoch ap Evan, who cut off his own naturall Mothers Head, and his Brothers (1633).

Biography Italy Music

My efforts, which are perhaps spoken ill of by the critics

Following on from my post on Thomas Tallis, these fragments form an overview of the life of the baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.

Vivaldi was born in Venice on 4th March 1678, the eldest of nine children.His father, Giovanni Battista, was a tailor’s son who went on to become a professional violinist; in 1685 he was engaged as a musician at S Marco under the surname Rossi, which suggests Vivaldi’s famous red hair (his nickname was il prete rosso – the red priest) may have been inherited from his father. Antonio was baptised on 6th May, but a provisional baptism took place on the day of his birth, possibly as a consequence of a medical condition. This illness, which plagued Vivaldi throughout his life, was described by him as ‘strettezza di petto’, and equates today with a type of bronchial asthma.

Between 1693 and 1703, Vivaldi trained for the priesthood at his local churches S Geminiano and S Giovanni. He probably learned to play the violin at home, and in 1703 he became maestro di violino at the Pio Ospedale della Pieta, one of four Venetian establishments which cared for abandoned orphans and specialised in offering musical training to the girls in its care. Musical performances and services at the Pieta were a highlight of the Venetian calendar, and as such it was essential that there was a continual supply of new works for the orphans to perform. In addition to the instruction offered by musicians such as Vivaldi, a group of particularly talented young women known as the figlie privilegiate di coro was responsible for teaching the younger pupils.

Ospedale della Pieta

In addition to his work at the Pieta, Vivaldi was also working on his own career as a composer. The earliest extant work by him is dated 1705 and is his op.1, a set of 12 chamber sonatas dedicated to Count Annibale Gambara. This 1705 edition describes Vivaldi on the title-page as ‘Musico di violino, professore veneto’, making no mention of the Pieta but acknowledging, with the use of the title ‘Don’, his status as a priest.

On 30 April 1713, the Pieta granted Vivaldi permission to leave Venice for one month, and in May, Ottone in villa was given its premiere at the Teatro delle Garzerie, Vicenza. The following November Vivaldi made his operatic debut on the Venetian stage with Orlando finto pazzo at the Teatro S Angelo. Between 1716 and 1718 he also wrote three operas for the S Moise theatre.

Vivaldi spent a great deal of time travelling. According to two letters of 1737 to Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona, he spent three carnival seasons in Rome and was invited twice to play before the pope. In July 1723, the Pieta governors asked Vivaldi to supply the orchestra with two concertos every month, sending them by post if needs be, and to direct three or four rehearsals of them when in Venice. The Pieta’s accounts include payment to Vivaldi for over 140 concertos between 1723 and 1729, evidence that during this period his skill as a composer was invaluable.

op.1 1705

Around this time Vivaldi began an association with the contralto Anna Giro. The daughter of a Mantuan wig maker, Giro had become his singing pupil, and between 1723 and 1748 she appeared regularly on the stage, especially in Venice.  Both Anna and her half-sister Paolina (who acted as her chaperone) were loyal members of Vivaldi’s entourage, and despite his denials, it was widely assumed that Anna was his mistress.

In 1725, perhaps Vivaldi’s most famous piece, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione  op.8 (opening with the four concertos portraying the four seasons) appeared, dedicated to his Bohemian patron Count Wenzel von Morzin.

Between late 1729 and early 1733, Vivaldi travelled widely, promoting opera in small regional towns such as Verona, Ancona, Reggio nell’Emilia and Ferrara, and indeed, up until 1738 he was heavily involved with composing and staging works in various European countries as well as in Venice. But in 1738, Cardinal Tomaso Ruffo, Archbishop of Ferrara, refused to allow Vivaldi to enter Ferrara, on account of his relationship with Anna Giro, and by 1739 his reputation in Venice was also suffering. The time spent away from the Pieta and the theatres in his home town meant that works performed in his absence were open to a certain creative reinterpretation by musicians; Siroe, for example was criticised for alterations introduced by the harpsichordist, which resulted in Vivaldi’s patrons refusing to support the production of another opera, Farnace.


In 1740, with his finances failing and his health in decline, Vivaldi travelled with Anna to Vienna, giving the governors of the Pieta the excuse to cancel plans to buy a ‘portion of [his] concertos’. Vivaldi’s intention had been to travel to Austria for the production of one or more of his operas at the Karntnertortheater, but the death of Charles VI in October meant the closure of all Viennese theatres, further adding to his financial difficulties. In spite of this, Vivaldi stayed in Vienna. However, in July 1741 ill health finally claimed him, and he died in in a house owned by the widow of a saddler. He was given a pauper’s burial at the Hospital Burial Ground, and a statement in a contemporary Venetian commonplace book records that Vivaldi, who had once earned 50,000 ducats, died in poverty. Anna returned to Venice after his death, and a year later his opera his opera L’oracolo in Messenia was produced posthumously at the Kärntnertortheater.

Vivaldi’s vanity was apparently notorious. He bragged about his fame and his illustrious patrons, and often exaggerated the speed and fluency with which he could compose. In addition, he was also extremely sensitive to criticism; in the dedications of his opp.1 and 4, he uses the phrase ‘i miei sudori forse malignati dalla critica’ (‘my efforts, which are perhaps spoken ill of by the critics’). All his biographers cite his preoccupation with money as excessive. Despite the admiration and praise of his contemporaries, interest in Vivaldi’s music largely vanished within only a few decades after his death, not to be revived until the beginning of the 20th century. Vivaldi wrote more than 500 concertos, many for solo violin, but others for cello, flute, oboe, and bassoon, all of which instruments were played by members of the all-female orchestra at the Pieta, as were those that appear only in solo groups in his concerti grossi, including the horn, trumpet, lute, and chalumeau (the forerunner to the clarinet).

As one of his biographers concludes, between 1710–30, Vivaldi’s influence on the concerto was so strong that some established composers such as Albinoni felt obliged to modify their style in mid-career, and because the influence of the concerto affected all forms of composition, Vivaldi can quite legitimately be regarded as ‘a most important precursor to the Bach sons in the evolution of the Classical symphony.’

Sources: Eric Cross, Dennis Arnold, Michael Talbot – Oxford Music Online

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Biography Music

Tallis is dead, and music dies

Detail from Pieter Bruegel’s The Fall of The Rebel Angels (1562)

I have always had a love for early modern music. One of my favourite composers is the chorister and organist Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), and what follows is a brief overview of Tallis’s life, with thanks to his most recent biographer, John Milsom.

Tallis was probably born c.1505, although nothing is known about his birthplace, parents, or early life.  Eight years before his death in 1585 he described himself as ‘verie aged’.  Like other church musicians, Tallis would have begun his career as a chorister.  His earliest known work, Salve intemerata, is complex and elaborate, suggesting he had learned how to play the organ and compose organ music, probably in a recognised and influential choral institution.  His first professional position was as organist of the Benedictine priory of Dover from 1530 -33, and he was later lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral, which suggests he may have had links with Kent and the south-east of England.

Moving from Dover to London in 1535, Tallis became a member of the choir of St Mary-at-Hill, a parish church with a strong musical tradition.  In 1538 he moved to Waltham Abbey in Essex.  One of the abbey manuscripts, a book of musical theory, bears his signature, and when the abbey was dissolved in 1540 he may have taken the book with him.  By the summer of the same year Tallis had moved to Canterbury, and his name is listed as one of the choristers in the newly-enlarged choir.  He stayed at Canterbury two years, but by 1543 he had joined the choir of the Chapel Royal, where he remained until his death in 1585.

Other than Salve intemerata, there are very few works which can be firmly attributed to Tallis during the early years of his career.  Several pieces included in a set of music books copied in 1540-1 may be by Tallis. One of them is a mass which derives in part from Salve intemerata, and demonstrates the early influence on Tallis by established composers such as John Taverner.

The choir of the Chapel Royal had been significantly developed during the reign of Henry VIII.  Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, all received training in music as part of their education, and Tallis benefitted from this interest in musical excellence during the latter part of the sixteenth century.  He performed with and composed for a group of astonishingly talented singers, rising to become the choir’s most senior member. Officially designated as a ‘gentleman’ (lay singer), in 1575 he also referred to himself as joint organist alongside his colleague William Byrd.  During the reign of Mary I, Tallis married a widow, Joan, who had previously been married to Thomas Bury, a gentleman of the Chapel Royal.  Like many other members of the royal choir, the couple lived in Greenwich.

From Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (1575)

In addition to particular performances at state occasions such as coronations, weddings, and funerals, the royal choir also took part in daily church services, which shifted substantially during Tallis’s career to reflect the developing and changing religious climate in England.  Under Edward VI a new repertory of canticles and anthems was introduced to English texts, but after the accession of Mary I, the Roman Catholic liturgy was once again restored.

No books used by the Chapel Royal survive from Tallis’s lifetime and a substantial number of works by him have almost certainly been lost.  However there are works which have survived in other sources, notably Gaude gloriosa Dei mater, a piece for a six-part choir in praise of the Virgin Mary.  Its composition cannot be dated, but it would have almost certainly been sung during the reign of Mary I.  Tallis’s setting of an English version of Te Deum, preserved in part, was probably written for an important state occasion. The most popular and enduring works written by Tallis at this time are the anthems and canticles he wrote 1549-53. Some of them, including ‘If ye love me’ and ‘Hear the voice and prayer’ have become firm constituents of the Anglican repertory, and served as models for the next generation of English composers.

According to his biographer, Tallis’s two popular settings of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Incipit lamentatio and De lamentatione, which survive only in manuscript, refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, a theme often interpreted as a metaphor for the suppression of the Catholic faith.  Tallis’s most moving motet (a piece of music choral music with Latin text), the forty-voice Spem in alium has endured down through the years.  There have been attempts made to link Spem in alium with the fortieth birthday celebrations of Elizabeth I in 1573, but an anecdote in an early seventeenth-century notebook connects it to Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, who is said to have commissioned the piece in 1571.  A copy of Spem in alium is included in a 1596 inventory of Arundel’s books, and according to the anecdote the work was first performed at Arundel House in the Strand in London.

Tallis’s closest friendship was probably with fellow composer William Byrd (1542-1623). The two men worked closely together and Tallis was godfather to Byrd’s son Thomas. Tallis died on 23 November 1585 and was buried in the chancel of the parish church of St Alfege, Greenwich. After his death, Byrd wrote a lament, ‘Ye Sacred Muses’, which closes with the words ‘Tallis is dead, and music dies’.  Tallis’s burial was marked with a brass memorial, lost during the Second World War. The text however was recorded as follows:

He serv’d long Tyme in Chapp[ell] with grete prayse,
Fower sovereygnes reignes (a thing not often scene),
I mean King Henry and Prince Edward’s Dayes,
Quene Mary, and Elizabeth our Quene.
He maryed was, though Children had he none,
And lyv’d in Love full thre and thirty Yeres …
As he did Lyve, so also did he dy,
In myld and quyet Sort (O! happy Man).

Tallis’s position as one of the foundational composers of Protestant church music ensured that his name endured in English church worship from the sixteenth century onwards.  He contributed several of the pieces in Matthew Parker’s psalter, published for private circulation, which are now very famous, including the ‘Eighth Tune’, known as ‘Tallis’s Canon’ to the words ‘Glory to thee, my God, this night’, and the ‘Third Tune’, upon which Ralph Vaughan Williams based his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910).  In 1928 Tallis’s collected works were published, and today he is held in high regard as one of the most performed and respected composers of early modern England.

Source: John Milsom, DNB
A facsimile copy of the collection of Latin motets by Tallis and Byrd, Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (London, 1575), is available via EEBO.

Tallis: Spem in Alium - The Lamentations of Jeremiah - Choir Of King's College, Cambridge, Choir Of St. John's College, Cambridge, David Wilcocks, George Guest & Stephen Cleobury

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

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Carnivalesque 64

Fragments is very pleased to be hosting the 64th edition of Early Modern Carnivalesque, a gathering of some of the most interesting blog posts from the early modern blogging community.

First up we have the fate of the Wedgewood Museum over at the award-winning Georgian London. Lucy Inglis considers the plight of the Wedgewood Collection, and its formation under artisan Josiah Wedgewood, who died in 1725.


From the decorative arts, to art of a very different nature, Caroline Rance at The Quack Doctor explores the unusual medicinal practise of diagnosis via urine from 1815.


Taking a detour from urine to royalty, Nick, at Mercurius Politicus, reveals some intriguing royalist graffiti in Cheam.


Odd fellows from Roy, at Early Modern Whale, who takes a look at the early modern Fortune Teller.


‘My appetite is sick for want of a capacity to digest your favours.’ Women in Medieval and Early Modern History offer up some extraordinary early modern chat up lines.

Once you’ve wooed your beloved, you might like to make them a John Evelyn salad. The Gentleman Administrator reveals all you need to know.


The World Cup may be over, but the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have devised a means to keep your interest alive. Iago is in mid-field in Shakespeare’s Fantasy Football

From Iago to a villain of a different kind, Executed Today examines the hanging of pirate John Quelch.    
Speaking of villains, cartoonist Ade Teal kindly provides us with caricatures of two early modern rogues:


On the other side of the Atlantic, Warren, artistic director of early modern music ensemble Magnificat, recently visited Spain, and reports back on the 18th century composer Martini’s enormous collection of music manuscripts and partbooks  

More printing, this time from the Two Nerdy History Girls, who witnessed the early modern printing process in action.
Sally, over at Travels and Travails in Eighteenth Century England, has been exploring medicinal recipes, including the Lady Puckring’s salve for sore brests.
From sore breasts to slippery weather, Emily at The Artist’s Progress reveals the history of early modern caricature.


Art of a different nature from the engraver Mr Read, who entertains with more spectral escapades at The Cogitations of Read.


And Ben, at Res Obscura, has been getting to grips with some 17th century  apothecary poetry.


Finally, here at Fragments, I’ve been exploring the last will and testament of Mr William Shakespeare, gent. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about Carnivalesque, or would like to be a host, contact the lovely Sharon at Early Modern Web
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