Katherine Butler: Music in Elizabethan Court Politics

The Boydell Press, 2105
x + 260pp, £60
ISBN 978 1 84383 981 1

In this book Katherine Butler sets out to answer a seemingly straightforward question: ‘how and why was music useful within Elizabethan court politics?’ (p. 6). The evidence for ‘how’ – or maybe rather ‘when’ and ‘where’ – music was used, though multi-faceted, is relatively concrete and straightforward to interpret, but the consideration of ‘why’ music was politically useful rests on less tangible concepts. Butler argues that, for Elizabethans, music had three types of political purpose: the analogy between political and audible harmony; the association of musical knowledge and skill with high levels of education and social status; and its use as a means of persuasion. These themes form consistent threads throughout her study.

As Butler makes clear at the outset, there is virtually no surviving music on which to base her work. There are a few more than a dozen extant musical settings of lyrics from performances associated with the Elizabethan court, and even these settings cannot equivocally be said to have been the versions performed at those events. This is, therefore, not a consideration of how composers used musical techniques to deliver political aims, but rather an investigation into where and when music was used, and its intended effect. Butler’s primary source material comes from contemporary accounts of private music-making as well as public performances such as tournaments and progresses, along with song texts preserved in those accounts. Her comprehensive citation of recent research into other aspects of Elizabethan cultural and political life provides a solid and very helpful context for her study.

The book is organised into five main chapters, moving from very intimate uses of music to public performances in which music played a significant role. The first chapter – ‘Music, Authority, and the Royal Image’ – sets the scene and debates the challenges of the ambivalent sixteenth-century attitude to the acquisition and display of musical knowledge and skills for Elizabeth. The following four chapters deal in turn with the political uses made of intimate performances by Elizabeth and her courtiers; performances within the royal household, including masques and choir-boy plays; tournaments; and finally performances put on by aristocratic households and cities for Elizabeth and the court during her summer progresses. Butler sees the path through chapters two to five as a passage from events in which music delivers value to the monarch through those that benefit the nobility, arriving at performances in which the primary beneficiaries are public bodies and performers. This is true to an extent but one of the striking aspects of her investigation is that, in almost all cases, there is the potential for more than one party to a musical event to benefit in more than one way.

Who, then, benefitted politically from the use of music? At the intimate end of the scale, access to the Queen’s personal performances bestowed exclusivity to the listener, particularly useful for diplomatic purposes. Larger-scale court and public performances helped enhance the image of the monarchy as a significant political player in Europe, or promulgated the idea (or perhaps myth) of a harmonious country at home. For courtiers wishing to enhance their image, petition the Queen, complain about something or dispense advice, there were opportunities ranging from the private performance of a song especially composed for the Queen, through participation in court masques and tournaments, to the large-scale staging at one’s country seat of a performance for a royal progress. For civic bodies and individuals such as performers access was more limited but, even so, the opportunities were there to put forward one’s cause. Butler argues that the ephemeral nature of the music associated with these events meant that it was a safe medium in which to deliver advice and sometimes critical messages to the Queen.

Given that most types of entertainment could be used to achieve similar ends, there is inevitably some repetition of concepts and, occasionally, examples across Butler’s chapters. On the other hand this does mean that the chapters are relatively self-sufficient, so that someone particularly interested in tournaments, for instance, could get a great deal from reading just the relevant chapter.

Given the material available to her, Katherine Butler has largely met the challenge she set herself. We have a clear picture of both how and why music was used by people other the Queen to further their ends, although in the case of some types of theatrical performance we might debate just how crucial was the inclusion of music. In the case of Elizabeth, the situation is more complex, reflecting her multiple roles in relation to music in court politics. Butler’s analysis of the apparent efforts of the Queen and her advisers to manage the tactical use of her own performances, the patronage of others, the employment of music to contribute to the positive image of the state, along with the need to decide how far to go in exploiting the feminine and sensual associations of music, and, crucially, how far to tolerate petitioning, the giving of advice, and chastisement by others through the medium of music, paints a picture of a sophisticated and subtle state machine working in this case through the medium of music.

Tessa Murray