Journal of the Northern Renaissance

~ Radical Open Access ~

Katherine Butler, Music in Elizabethan Court Politics (Boydell Press, 2015)

Katherine Butler, Music in Elizabethan Court Politics (Boydell Press, 2015). ISBN: 9781843839811, 271 pp., £60.00.

Reviewed by Susan Anderson

[1] Music in Elizabethan Court Politics is a broad study of the ways music’s performance could be used to intervene in the complex political machinations of Elizabeth’s court. Despite its title, the book examines more than just music, considering it as embedded within a range of other art forms employed in courtly performance – and rightly so, since music was nearly always framed by other arts in its presentation, particularly poetry. Furthermore, it is often necessary to look to non-musical contextual material to find evidence of music at all, since only a tiny fraction of the music heard at court was written down. Even then, notated music often only survives in adapted forms whose relationship to the performances under discussion is unclear. Butler does a sterling job of weaving together the sparse remains of music’s traces to present a set of scenarios in which music’s political potential can be realised.


[2] Butler is less interested in the ways music itself is understood by the Elizabethans than in its practical use in advancing political aims, both in terms of its use as an icon, and its relationship to early modern political theory. Throughout, Butler places the possibilities music presents within a nicely nuanced understanding of both political and artistic contexts by acknowledging the multiple points of address and significance present in a variety of performances. The book opens with a discussion of music’s role in Elizabeth’s image-making, with the first chapter examining a range of modes in which Elizabeth is represented as musical. This includes Elizabeth’s notable personal skills as a musician and as an appreciator of music, as well as her figurative musicality as a quasi-mythical bringer of harmony in the form of peace and unity. In Butler’s examination, Elizabeth emerges as a contradictory figure, oscillating between typical and exceptional, especially in terms of her gender.

[3] This yoking of contradictory qualities continues in Chapter 2’s examination of the “staged intimacy” (p. 43) of recreational music at Elizabeth’s court. As Butler points out, music’s privacy can never be guaranteed, but such an “inherent lack of secrecy may have been an advantage” (p. 64). Despite the obvious difficulties in finding and deciphering examples of such tactical use of purportedly private music, Butler shows how the Earl of Essex might have used a combination of music and lyrics to address his situation in 1596-8. Richard Martin’s ‘Change Thy Mind Since She Doth Change’ and Daniel Bacheler’s ‘To Plead My Faith’ have enough circumstantial connection with Essex and his circle to serve as plausible examples of how this might have worked, and Butler emphasises “the contrast between the emotive lyrics and a more constrained musical setting” (p. 72), showing how music facilitated and even enhanced the political valences traced by scholars such as Catherine Bates in Elizabethan courtly love poetry.

[4] Chapter 3 continues the book’s movement from relatively private to relatively public contexts, considering music in Elizabeth’s household in terms of the musical personnel employed, and the use to which music was put in court performances of masques and plays. The discussion places the choirboy plays in particular into the context of Renaissance ideals of political counsel, demonstrating the ways that even in absolute monarchy, power is distributed and contingent. The resulting complexity is borne out by the heterogeneous possibilities Butler opens up in her analysis of images and music in court plays such as Lyly’s Midas.

[5] The contradictions explored in Chapter 4 involve the intriguing implications of the combination of pastoral and military modes in tournament iconography. Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Henry Lee are figures with widely differing fortunes in their courtly careers, but Butler shows how they both required music for the fashioning of personae that reflected and refracted their particular situations. In Sidney’s case, the Shepherd Knight is itself a combination of fantasy figures who embody peacetime and military values. This allows “a synthesis of the warlike and the peaceful, military talent and cultured learning” (p. 121), simultaneously valorising conflicting aspects of the broader aesthetic and moral values of the Renaissance. As Butler points out, this is a specific case epitomising the “compromise of all tournaments in combining musical pageantry with military sport” (p. 129). For Lee, the inclusion of aural references to devotional music in songs that are highly likely to have been performed at his last tournament as Queen’s champion helped to negotiate his transition to retirement without compromising his fidelity to the Queen.

[6] The final chapter looks at progress entertainments, and it is here that Butler makes the clearest case for the importance of music qua music when she notes that “praising Elizabeth through song rather than speech” enables “flattery to be delivered artfully, often making simple and at times quite stereotypical verses more appealing” (p. 148). Considering progress entertainments from a multi-disciplinary perspective thus helps us to look beyond the often banal surface of the poetry, and appreciate the complexities of a multi-layered art form navigating several conflicting demands. Through a thorough contextualisation of the highly-charged circumstances of these performances, Butler is building on a recently-established tradition of new historicist scholarship that has re-examined the kinds of court and civic occasional entertainments previously dismissed as frivolous and ephemeral, and found them to be intensely political events worthy of close examination.

[7] This is often a cautious book, and appropriately so, given the limitations of the evidence available, and Butler resists theorising about what it is music in particular is capable of achieving in these examples. Butler is clearly right in the context of her argument to emphasise the “multimodal” (p. 195) nature of musical performance, given the absence of a methodology for understanding what music specifically might contribute, when that music is unavailable to us. Ultimately, Butler concludes that it is “Elizabeth’s love of music” that “allowed it to play such a rich role in the politics of her court” (p. 194) not, therefore, anything inherent to music itself. The book provides a very useful supplement to the kinds of material gathered by Christopher Marsh’s Music and Society in Early Modern England, and offers a more detailed and focused look at the application of music to the specific context of the world of the Elizabethan court.

Leeds Trinity University, January 2016

Next Post

Previous Post

Leave a Reply

© 2023 Journal of the Northern Renaissance

Theme by Anders Norén