Anglo-Irish Music during the Fifteenth Century

William H. Grattan Flood
Chapter XI

DAVEY is forced to admit that "not a piece of music endurable by modern ears existed in England before 1400." But all this is by the way of glorifying the work of John Dunstable, whom the historian of English music claims as the inventor of polyphony and counterpoint. Professor Niecks, of Edinburgh University, very properly denies this statement; and he instances dozens of examples of two and three-part counterpoint all anterior to the birth of Dunstable, a few of which go back to the year 1300.[1] Mr. Barclay Squire, of the British Museum, shows clearly that the absurd claim for Dunstable's invention of counterpoint is owing to a misreading of Tinctoris (1455-1511).

Certain it is that the so-called "improvements" attributed to Dunstable, e.g., "the independence of his voice parts, and the use of suspensions, passing-notes, and short imitations"—were known to our Anglo-Irish composer, Lionel Power. Davey rather naively adds that "it is not easy to point out exactly in what the improvements of Dunstable consisted;" and that "the lack of older music makes it unclear whether these were known previously."

After this damning admission on the part of Mr. Davey, it is scarcely worth while to examine too closely the assertion that "we may take it as certain that Dunstable walked in Rouen Cathedral before Henry V., in January, 1419. But when we are seriously told that the great Guillaume Dufay (1370-1474) graduated at Paris, "where he learned the English art of composition," it is time to protest. "Paris," writes Davey, "was under English rule from 1420 to 1436, . . . and, thus, Dufay, without visiting England, could learn how immeasurably superior English music then was to all other; indeed, to any music which had ever existed."

No better refutation of this amazing statement need be quoted than the words of Professor Ransome, who tells us in his Short History of England that "from 1424 to 1429 England had practically lost France; and, in 1440, Paris was completely abandoned—the English with difficulty maintaining themselves in Normandy." Moreover, it is doubtful if ever Dunstable was in France; and we know that Dufay went to Rome in 1427, where he remained till 1437. Strangely enough, Davey ignores the ancestry of Dufay, who was a Walloon, and the Walloons were Celts.[2] It is only pertinent to add that Dunstable died on December 24th, 1453, whilst Dufay's death, at Cambrai, is chronicled on November 18th, 1474.

The Irish harp and the timpan were popular at this period with the inhabitants of the Pale, and, in 1450, there is an allusion to the Clavichord or Clavicembalo, a primitive keyboard stringed-instrument. Nor was the bagpipe, or Cornemuse, neglected. In the "Buke of the Howlate," a Scotch MS., written cir. 1455, there is mention of "the trump, the tabour, the recordour, the tympane, and the lilt-pype."

In regard to the organ, it is of interest to mention that one of the earliest organ builders in England of whom there is authentic information, was Brother John Rouse, a Dominican Friar, who had learned the art in Kilkenny, in 1455. As yet, organs were not very elaborate in construction, and we read that the "noble instrument" which was presented to St. Alban's Abbey, in 1448, by Abbot Wheathamstead, only cost £18. The same year is memorable as the date of the earliest example of an organ score, namely, a manuscript autograph on a staff of eight lines, with the three clefs of F, C, and G, by Adam Fleborg, Rector of the University of Stendall.

Under the date of 1460, in the MS. Annals of Duiske (Graiguenamanagh, Co. Kilkenny), we read that Brother Aengus, a Cistercian monk, of Holy Cross Abbey, Co. Tipperary, came to Duiske and repaired the "old organ" there, "which, not having been used of late years, was sadly affected by damp, and the leather of the bellows was gnawed by rats."

In the will of Michael Tregury, Archbishop of Dublin, dated December 10th, 1471, that estimable prelate bequeathed "a payre of organs" to St. Patrick's Cathedral, to be used in St. Mary's Chapel.[3] About this time the keys of the organ were reduced in size from two inches to 1 ¾ inches, and new contrivances were devised to facilitate alike the labours of the "pulsator organorum" and the blowers. Each key had its name-letter inscribed on it, namely, F, G, A, etc.

John Lawless was a most celebrated Irish organ builder during the latter half of the fifteenth century. Unfortunately, none of his specifications have survived, but there is evidence that he erected twenty organs in various parts of Ireland for cathedral and monastic churches. He was held in such high esteem that the Kilkenny Corporation, at the suggestion of the Earl of Ormonde, granted him many privileges on condition of making a permanent residence in the cathedral city of St. Canice. Fortunately, among the deeds of the Corporation, there is still preserved a document, dated December, 1476, "on the Monday after the Feast of the Nativity," agreeing to the terms of the ground rent, etc., from John Lawless, "organ maker," with the proviso that he was "to practise his art within the said town of Kilkenny."

In an interesting MS. account of the Dominican Abbey, Athenry, Co. Galway, there is an entry, under date of 1479, which proves that the Friars Preachers, or Black Friars, availed of the king of instruments in their musical services. We read that Thomas Bermingham, Baron of Athenry, and his wife, Annabella, bestowed "three silver marks towards the building of the abbey-church organ."[4] The "loyal" tendencies of this munificent benefactor to Athenry Abbey may be gauged from the fact that he repaired, at his own expense, "the rooms of the English bachelors of theology."

Milo Roche, Bishop of Leighlin (1470-1490), was an accomplished musician, and "a skilled performer on all manner of instruments." The annalist Dowling says:—"Inter bardos numeratur pro omnibus instrumentis"; whilst Ware adds that "he was more addicted to the study of music and poetry than was fit."

In reference to Davey's statement that "probably Dunstable taught Okeghem," it is only necessary to say that the Latin original of Tinctoris from which he professes to quote can bear no such interpretation. The text of Tinctoris merely gives the reader to understand that the then modern school of music followed the example of Dunstable, Dufay, Obrechts, etc. However, it is satisfactory to read the following candid admission by the historian of English music:—"Okeghem's science brought forth the genius of Josquin des Pres, who, as early as 1480, had produced that Stabat Mater which to this day commands admiration, while the English were still doing what had been done before." Of course this is equally true of Anglo-Irish music.

In the "Squyr of Lowe Degre," written cir. 1480, there is mention of the various instruments then popular in England, including "harp, getron, sautry, rote, ribible, clokarde, pypes, organs, bumbarde, sytolphe, fydle, recorder, doucemere, trompette, and claryon."[5]

With the invention of music printing, in 1473, the knowledge of the "divine art" made considerable headway all over the continent. It is not a little remarkable that the very first book containing plain chant in Roman notation, printed from movable types, was issued from the press of Octavianus Scotus, of Venice, in 1481, under the supervision of an Irishman, Maurice O'Fihily, a Franciscan Friar, who was subsequently Archbishop of Tuam. It was not till 1495 that Wynkyn de Worde printed the first book in England containing musical notes.

After the Lambert Simnel comedy in 1487, Sir Richard Edgecombe was sent to Ireland as Royal Commissioner to administer new oaths of allegiance, and we read that, on Monday, July 21st, 1488, he was present at St. Thomas's Abbey, in Dublin. The old record of his "progress" runs as follows:—"At the termination of High Mass in one of the oratories, the Earl of Kildare and the other magnates went into the great church; and, in the choir thereof, the Archbishop of Dublin began the Te Deum, and the choir with the organs sung it up solemnly."[6]

I have dwelt at rather unusual length on the use of organs in Ireland in the fifteenth century, inasmuch as most writers, copying Walker, have asserted that organs were only introduced into this country after the period of the Reformation. A similar fiction has long obtained to the effect that Mumming and Christmas Carols only go back to the days of Elizabeth, and hence a brief refutation of such a statement is within the scope of the present chapter.

As to Mumming, we have ample documentary evidence that Mystery or Morality plays were performed in Dublin and Kilkenny in the fourteenth century, from which sprang the Mummers. Dodsley says that "the Mummers, as bad as they were, seem to be the true original comedians of England." It is quite apparent that the Buffoon who invariably accompanied the Mummers was an evolution of the Vice of the old Morality plays, subsequently represented by Punch, in the now fast disappearing Punch and Judy shows.[7]

Christmas Carols were popular among the Anglo-Irish in the fourteenth century, and continued in unabated favour till the reign of Elizabeth. They were mostly adaptations of secular songs, as we have seen in the case of Bishop Ledrede's Cantilenae. The word "Carol" is of the same family as "Choir"—meaning Song or Dance, or both—and is derived from the mediaeval form Coraula, which, in turn, is derived from the Celtic. In the Coventry Mysteries there is introduced a Christmas Carol. A very natural outcome of the various hymns sung in the churches during the Christmas season was the transference of such airs to the home circle.

Naturally, the Wars of the Roses did much to retard the development of music during the second half of the fifteenth century. The Earl of Ormonde was hanged after the battle of Towton, on March 29th, 1461, but the Butlers were again taken into favour in 1468. In 1485, Henry VII. propitiated the Yorkists by appointing Gerald, Earl of Kildare, as Viceroy, and Thomas Fitzgerald as Chancellor. Seven years later, the Perkin Warbeck plot complicated matters; but it fizzled out ingloriously in 1494, and Warbeck was hanged at Tyburn, with his friend, John Waters, Mayor of Cork, on November 16th, 1499.

England, from 1450 to 1500, can only boast a few compositions of any merit, for which Davey apologetically explains as follows:—"So much of Flemish work remains, and so little of the English work, that the English appear to be more inferior than they really were." If this apology seems satisfactory as regards music in England at this period, it is of still greater force in the case of Anglo-Irish music, both on account of the Wars of the Roses, the Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck plots, and the internecine conflicts of the colonists themselves, as also the destruction of manuscripts. In any case, practically the only secular music in Ireland at the close of the fifteenth century was the old Irish music, whilst, as regards sacred music, matters were pretty much as they had been a century previously. But of this latter phase I shall treat in a separate chapter.



[1] The Teaching of Musical History, 1900.

[2] See paper on "Music and Musicians of the Walloon Provinces of Belgium." by Mr. W. W. Cobbett, read before the Musical Association, on January 9th. 1901.

[3] MS., T.C.D., B2. See also "Register of Dublin Wills," 1457-1483.

[4] Sloane MSS. (Brit. Mus.), 4784, p. 43, No. 4.

[5] King Henry V of England was a good musician, being distinguished as a harper, composer, and organist. He brought a military band with him to France in 1415, consisting of "ten clarions and other instruments." He married the Princess Katherine of Valois, at Troyes, on June 3rd (Trinity Sunday), 1420, and, notwithstanding the dreadful strife, spent not a little of his spare time cultivating music. In October, 1420, he sent to England for a harp for Queen Katherine; and there is an entry in the Exchequer Rolls of £8 13s. 4d., being the amount paid to John Bore, harp-maker, London, for two new harps.

[6] In 1486 William Wotton, "orkyn maker," built a "payre of organs" for Magdalen College, Oxford, for £28.

[7] The names "Punch" and "Judy" are corrupt survivals of Pontius and Judas, respectively intended for Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot.