Playing the Music

Portrait of Charles I

In the seventeenth century Stuart court, music was an essential element of the masque, and the variety of musicians on the night could be extensive. Virtuosos were exalted – from instrumentalists to singers – and the King’s Music encouraged their development. String instruments were especially popular in accompanying singing, poetry and dancing. The lute was favoured in its varying sizes; the mandora was small, the mean was medium, and the theorbo was large. For songs a single instrument might accompany the singer, however if they required a deeper tone several of the same instrument, or certainly the same family, was most likely to be used. In Campion’s Lord Hay’s Masque, in 1607, he recorded the employment of forty-two voices and instruments; in the Caroline era this was greatly extended with more than eighty recorded for Shirley’s The Triumph of Peace in 1634. For the antimasque a confusing array of instruments might be used to reflect the chaos of the text and dance. The witches in the antimasque to Jonson’s The Masque of Queens danced to a “kind of hollow and infernall musique… with spindalls, timbrells, rattles… making a confused noyse”. As was common with Kings, James I and Charles I employed the best
composers, instrumentalists and singers.

I recently visited Nice with my family and discovered that it has a strong link to historical music. The city is famous for its beaches and lively cultural scene; however, it also has a fascinating history. At the Truce of Nice in 1538, the city found itself the meeting place of three great powers; that of France, Spain and the papal court. This was for a peace summit to end the Italian War between France and Spain, with the papal court acting as a negotiating force. In fact, the hostilities were so great that Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain would not sit in the same room as one another and Pope Paul III had to walk from room to room to negotiate terms. What is significant from a musical perspective is that each court bought its best musicians and singers to the city. The violin, a new instrument for the era, was performed for the first time and it provided an opportunity for a meeting of the greatest lutenists of the time.

Epinette en aile d’oiseau, Paris, 1680

On my visit to Nice I spent time at the Palais Lascaris. The palace is beautiful in its own right; it is of seventeenth century baroque design and built for the hugely wealthy Vinitmille-Lascaris family who were a principle family of Nice. Every room is luxuriously decorated, but most enjoyable is the beautiful staircase, decorated with frescos.

Harp collection at the Palais Lascaris

The palace is home to a wonderful collection of musical instruments; the second largest collection in France. These range from the sixteenth to the twentieth century and it is considered to be one of the most important instrument collections in Europe. It was a fascinating visit, as the museum houses beautiful instruments from the seventeenth century. The collection of harps is both large and beautiful, as is the collection string instruments, from lutes and theorbos to viola d’amore. It was fascinating to see, not only the range of instruments available throughout the seventeenth century, but also the varying styles of decoration on these instruments – some of which were highly ornate. For anyone interested in music from this time, I would certainly recommend a visit to the Palais Lascaris!


The information provided at the Palais Lascaris informed much of this Blog.

Sabol, Andrew J. Four Hundred Songs and Dances from the Stuart Court. Rhode Island: Brown University Press, 1978.

Sabol, Andrew J. Songs and Dances for the Stuart Masque. Rhode Island: Brown University Press, 1959.