Le ray au soleyl – dazzlingly complicated and strangely beautiful


Ray au soleylVery little is known about Ciconia‘s early life. He was born in around 1370, probably one of the many illegitimate children of Johannes Ciconia of Liège (a priest) and a woman of high birth. According to Vatican records Ciconia was granted a papal dispensation for his defectus natalicium which allowed him to hold ecclesiastical posts and gave him leave never to admit to his illegitimacy again.

He was employed by Papal Legate of cardinal Philippe d’Alençon and was based in Rome by 1391. He seems to have been associated with the court of of Giangaleazzo Visconti from the early 1490s until the end of the century.

In mid 1401 Ciconia was appointed to a benefice in the church of S. Biagio di Roncalea and granted a chaplaincy in the cathedral. By 1403 he had become cantor et custos at Padua Cathedral, holding the position until his death in 1412.

Ciconia’s musical style is difficult to pin down; his secular works cover a wide variety of genres and he set texts in several languages. He mastered a kaleidoscopic assortment of idioms, equally at home with the French Ars Nova, the Northern Italian Trecento, and the Ars Subtilior.

Le ray au soleyl is a striking, almost minimalist work; a shimmer of overlapping sounds and a fitting conclusion to the frenetic experimentation that dominated musical expression in the late fourteenth century.

The text of Le ray au soleyl contains references to one of the emblems of Giangaleazzo Visconti—a dove holding a ribbon bearing the text A bon droyt, designed by Petrarch for the occaission of Visconti’s second marriage in 1380 to his cousin, Caterina. The canon has been dated to the 1390s on the grounds of this association.

Le ray au soleyl is a prolation canon—a canon based on ratios of speed rather than time delays—in this case 4:3:1




Henry Fitzalan – conspirator, collector and would-be King

Henry Fitzalan (1512-1580) was the 19th Earl of Arundel managed to serve a succession of Tudor monarchs (Henry VIII was his Godfather) without losing either his land or his titles. Or his head. He achieved this despite his involvement in a succession of conspiracies and an insatiable taste for corruption.

At one point he seriously fancied his chances of marrying Elizabeth I. She was less keen – he was old and ugly. Philip II’s ambassador noted that “she does not get on with him” and thought him to be “a flighty man of small ability”.

The ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor was equally unimpressed, and thought his chances of attaining the throne were minimal: “he and he alone entertains this hope, for he is somewhat advanced in years and also rather silly and loutish, is not well-favoured, nor has a handsome figure”.

He seems to have remained relatively loyal to Henry VIII (after whom he was named). Once Henry was dead he plotted compulsively and was imprisoned on several occasions. By the time Elizabeth was on the throne he was almost universally distrusted but was considered too powerful to depose.

He travelled widely, owned an impressive music library and lots of instruments. He was interested in artistic trends in Europe, especially Italy, but also the low countries. It took an uncommon talent to survive an entire lifetime in the upper echelons of the Tudor court and simply die of old age; Elizabeth I seriously under-estimated the man.

The Fitzalan partbooks (British Library Royal app 59-62) date from Henry Fitzalan’s trip to Italy in 1560. The dances themselves may have been in circulation since the 1520s. There are very few surviving examples of harmonised Italian dances of the period (although plenty of more modern collections exist); the Hessen brothers collection Viel Feiner lieblicher Stucklein (1555) was apparently copied from the same source. The Fitzalan partbooks are a rare example of an apparently complete set of parts.

© B Paul

John Playford: The war correspondent with a stranglehold on music publishing in England

John_Playford_by_David_LogganJohn Playford was a bookseller who held a monopoly on music publishing in England under the Commonwealth (1649–60), and during the reign of Charles II. Samuel Pepys was a valued customer; John Blow and Henry Purcell attended his funeral and Purcell set an elegy on his death to music.

Playford initially operated from a shop in the porch of Temple Church. He published books on music theory, instruction books for several instruments, and psalters.

He was a royalist sympathiser who flirted briefly with the idea of being a war correspondent during the Civil War.  It wasn’t a wholly succesful venture; captured by the Roundheads, he was released on condition that he kept out of trouble in future.

He returned to London and resolutely set out to publish the most non-controversial material he could lay his hands on.

The upshot was Playford’s English Dancing Master, first published in 1651. It was unexpectedly and wildly popular. The series eventually ran to eighteen editions of the first volume (1651–1728), four of the second (1710–1728), and two of the third (1719?–1726?). Between them the three volumes eventually encompassed 1,053 unique dances and their music.

The Dancing Master appeared during a period of upheaval and uncertainty; it was a little piece of England, familiar, comforting, and normal, that accompanied immigrants to Canada, America and India.

English Dancing Master

Although he is now best remembered for his collections of dance tunes he was far more interested in publishing “serious” music than dance books. During the Restoration he doggedly set out to publish masses of church music and other high minded works,

but was reluctantly forced to acknowledge that ‘all solemn musick was much laid aside, being esteemed too heavy and dull for the light heels and brains of this nimble and wanton age.’ He probably wouldn’t be very be surprised, although a little disappointed, by his legacy.

© B Paul