Sunday, November 20, 2011

Songbook From the Mayflower, 1620

Mayflower passenger William Brewster had a small library of hundreds of books, among them a 1599 book of psalm settings, “The Psalmes of David” by a popular composer of the day, Richard Allison.

Like the pop songbooks of today, Alison’s songbook allowed the performers a great deal of freedom. The music could be sung as solos, or in unison groups. It could be turned into four-part harmony or the parts could be played on any of the common instruments of the day: “lute, orpharyon, cittern, or bass violl, severally or altogether.” These instrumental arrangements could be done with or without a voice singing.

Then, as now, this type of flexibility for performances was imperative for the songbook to have wide currency. For musical performances, it was a do-it-yourself age. Local talent at all levels of accomplishment needed to be able to easily work up a performance from a page or two of notes. If it wasn’t easy – forget it.

Marketing being in its crude infancy, all of the bullet-point features of Allison’s songbook are stated, and restated, in the expansive title – a full paragraph long. Among these features, the title tells us, the volume was augmented “With tenne short Tunnes in the end, to which, for the most part all the Psalmes may usually be sung …. ” That is, you can take the words of any psalm and put them to the music of any of these 10 tunes. If one doesn’t work, try another. The tunes themselves, he adds, “are of mean skill” (they’re easy, in other words) “and whose leysure least serveth to practice” (you don’t even have to work at them, they’re so easy).

Not easy enough for Americans, as it turned out. Allison’s book wasn’t as popular here as it had been in Europe.

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