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Treasures of Old Song

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

Melody and the Lyric from Chancer to the Cavaliers, By John Murray Gibbon. With Two Hundred Musical Illustrations. London and Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons, Limited. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $5.00.

In “Melody and the Lyric” poetry and music are beautifully wedded; and, strangely enough, it is a thoroughly modern marriage upon really equal terms. Usually this traditional union is old-fashioned, with one partner or the other the downtrodden and subjected wife. Mr. Gibbon’s match-making is so consummate and so disinterested that one closes the volume still uncertain whether the author’s nearer interest is in literature or in music. Perhaps even to suggest the question is to violate the harmonious domesticity of the book.

Something of this happy harmony is surely due to the breadth of the quarto pages which permits the side-by-side printing of verses and airs, the music neither relegated to an appendix nor allowed to monopolize the text. It is an ideal solution of the problem of music printing. The musical reader will of course hum or sing his way through the book, and it is hard to conceive of a reader so unmusical as not to have a try at the ups and downs of musical notation so temptingly presented to him. The interlarded commentary, brief but always pithy, would at any rate sustain his interest. The necessary facts of literary and musical history are given unobtrusively in these comments, lighted by an enthusiasm that is never tawdry. If these introductory remarks sometimes appear sketchy, it is surely because the author is trying to avoid the appearance of “scholarship” and to have his comments subserve, not dominate, the songs themselves.

One is tempted to cull from the book a garland of quotations about the relations of poetry and music, beginning with the author’s introductory sentence, that “the identification of poetry with music is so much an axiom with the literary critic that he interchanges the words ‘poem’ and ‘song’ and ‘poet’ and ‘Singer’ as if they were synonyms,” and proceeding through the familiar words of Sir Philip Sidney and Ronsard to Milton’s

Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heaven’s joy, Sphere-born harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse,

on to Henry Purcell’s “Musick and Poetry have ever been acknowledged sisters,” and to conclude with the final quotation from Ezra Pound: “Poetry withers and dries out when it leaves music too far behind it. Poets who are not interested in music are, or become, bad poets.” But the method of the book is not theoretical but historical, and not only does it present a number of hitherto inaccessible and rarely beautiful songs from manuscript or scarce printed sources, but it also sheds a great deal of light on the relations of the English lyric to music from Chaucer to Robert Herrick and John Dryden.

That the English have always been a musical people is now pretty well recognized. Not only the minstrels, but even the mediaeval church was “a keeper and teacher of music.” But it may surprise some to learn that “the Oxford statutes of 1431 stipulated that music be studied for one year for the degree of M. A.,” and that “the statutes of Trinity College, Cambridge, founded by, Henry VIII, enjoined that the candidates for fellowship should show what skill they had in singing. All members were supposed to be capable of singing a part in choir service.” Thorough instruction in music was given at such schools as Westminster (which nurtured both Ben Jonson and Herrick), St. Paul’s, Merchant Taylors’, Winchester, and Eton. Erasmus, writing in 1509, the year of Henry VIII’s accession, speaks of the English as “the most accomplished in the skill of music of any people.” William Byrd’s eight “reasons briefly set down by the author to persuade every one to learn to sing” are delicious, and surely the Elizabethans harkened to his concluding couplet:

Since singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing.

“Until the execution of Charles I,” says Mr. Gibbon, “it was the recognized qualification for any man of breeding to be able to sing his part in a madrigal or trio at sight.”

English poets, living in this musical atmosphere, responded to it in varying degrees. Though Chaucer was well acquainted with music (recall how many of the Canterbury pilgrims were musical!), Mr. Gibbon rightly concludes that “the music that interested him was the word-music with which he resolved the uncouth harshness of Anglo-Norman speech into something that came in tripping verses from the tongue.” With the suggestion of a musical background for “Piers Plowman,” and a selection of old ballads and carols, the continuity of English song from Chaucer to the Elizabethans is emphasized. In the light of the material here presented, Wyatt and Surrey seem hardly the lyrical innovators they are made to appear in standard literary histories. The folk ballad is not discussed in a separate section, probably on the ground that it is not entirely “lyrical.” But scattered through the volume is a wealth of information about the writing of later verses to old ballad tunes, and the composers’ utilization of folk-music in settings composed for later lyrics. The Elizabethan material, especially the appearance of old ballads in the plays of the period, is mainly familiar, except for the influence of saraband, pavan, and other dance rhythms, especially the country dances, on English poetry, and the influence of Huguenot psalm-tunes on the metres of Sir Philip Sidney and Ben Jonson. The relations of poets and composers are revealingly treated throughout—for instance, the service of Jlenry Lawes to Milton and the Cavaliers, and of Purcell to John Dryden.

Before the forbidding figure of Alexander Pope, “the critic who fancied himself a poet,” and the “tone-deaf” eighteenth century, Mr. Gibbon pauses, with only a moment’s yearning toward Robert Burns, and concludes:

Does it really concern us or not whether an Elizabethan or Stuart poet wrote his lyrics to dance music or psalter tunes? Personally I think it does, if only to suggest the thought that the sooner our present-day poets return to this musical tradition, the better. It is not an accident that the English lyric poets of the golden age of English literature were steeped in music, any more than it was an accident that Robert Burns should have written his lyrics always with a tune in his head. The poet who writes to a melody instinctively writes verses that come trippingly from the tongue, whereas the poet of the printed page is heavy with sibilants and successive consonants.

“Melody and the Lyric” is a book of rare scholarship and rare delight. Some minor questions might of course be raised. Perhaps Mr. Gibbon overstresses the “lyrical desert” between Chaucer and Wyatt, and thus makes his oases the more impressive. Followers of Pope and lovers of the eighteenth century will have a score to settle with him; and he reaches needlessly far to say that “the sickly ballads of the Victorian Age could not inspire any but indifferent lyrics.” But these are controversial matters, and outside the bounds of his work. It is a book of varied interest, perhaps most valuable not for its information and scholarly, discussions, but for the many treasures of old song that it makes available. The dedication is fittingly to William Chappell, compiler of “Popular Music of the Olden Time.” Poetry readers of any musical culture will find “Melody and the Lyric” a genuine discovery.


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