THE ENGLISH COURT MASQUE

The Masque was a form of entertainment associated with the royal court of England, usually based on allegorical or mythological themes, that combined music and poetry with dance. It made use of elaborate costumes and sets and usually invited audience participation in some of the the dances. The form of the masque developed through the 16th century during the reigns of the Tudor kings and queens from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. It reached a peak of development in the 17th century when it was influenced by the French masquerade (masked ball) and ballet de cour (court ballet). By this time it had a more or less fixed sequence of songs, instrumental music and dances. Masques took place in Whitehall Palace (in the modern-day part of London known as the City of Westminster) which was the residence of English monarchs between 1530 and 1698 (when it burnt down). They were also staged at the Inns of Court not far away in the area known as the City of London.

Masques were usually written for special occasions and seldom performed more than once so their music was rarely published. As a result no complete score of any of the masques survives though there are some fragmentary sources that give an indication of the way the music was arranged and used.

Many masque tunes (especially those from the Stuart period) do, however, appear scattered in manuscripts and a few printed sources - especially as lute or keyboard arrangements. For example there are masque tunes to be found in the
Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and in Varietie of Lute Lessons.

Some of those responsible for creating masques remain well-known - notably Ben Jonson, who was a major influence in creating the standard form of the Stuart masque and the musicians William Lawes and Robert Johnson.

The tradition of royal masques came to an end with the onset of the English Civil War in 1642 as, during the war and the following Commonwealth period (1649 - 1660), they were regarded as a prime example of the extravagance of the royal court. However some of the writers associated with the masque, such as William Davenant and James Shirley continued to write allegorical works that were either performed in private or permitted on the public stage if they were seen as morally acceptable.

Following the restoration of the monarchy theatrical entertainment again began to thrive and the operatic works of composers such as John Blow (1649 - 1708) and Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695) appeared, undoubtedly influenced by the masque tradition.

The masque and its music have received considerable study in the last 40 or so years. The collection
Four Hundred Songs and Dances from the Stuart Masque (Sabol 1982) was the first attempt to catalogue the extant masque music from the Stuart period and has a lengthy introduction outlining the history of the masque. A more detailed history if provided by Music in the English Courtly Masque, 1604-1640 (Walls, 1985). There is also a lengthy article in Grove Music (Lefkovitz 2001) and very recently the Lute Society John Robinson has provided an edition of masque and stage music for renaissance lute that also has a fairly detailed historical introduction (Robinson, 2020).

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