The Tudor Revolution

The Tudor period in England was a time of revolutionary change. The Church, which was considered a cornerstone of civilisation, was in turmoil. The world turned from a comfortable, well-defined and God-given domain, with heaven above and hell below, to a huge globe, with no discernible up or down. Ships laden with untold riches and tall tales were arriving from newly discovered lands, forcing people to confront new ideas. The new territories gave rise to new rivalries between nations keen to exploit them. Even the English language changed, particularly in its pronunciation.

The printing press had been invented. Initially, it provided a significantly cheaper source for hugely expensive handwritten books. The Catholic church welcomed the revenue increase from the sale of indulgences (documents providing forgiveness from sins in return for cash), which could now be produced cheaply and sold at a huge profit. Its potential was quickly realised in other quarters. Printing quality was dropped in favour of the massive quantity capable of serving an eager mass market. By Henry VIII's day, huge numbers of ballads, from the godly to the filthy, were being sold at fairs. More worrying to the authorities were the diatribes, of all political and religious colours, which put dangerous ideas into the heads of an increasingly literate population, and which proved largely impossible to regulate, despite the destruction of many clandestine presses.

One happy consequence of the semi-free popular press was that music was available in large quantities, and relatively cheaply. The publishing houses of Flanders, in particular, disseminated all sorts of music - sacred psalms, secular motets, chansons and madrigals, instrumental consorts, and simple arrangements of the latest dance tunes, throughout Europe. Music changed as much as any other area of life. For the first time, instrumental music broke free from vocal models, and music was composed specifically for instruments. New musical instruments were invented. Some of them were dropped almost immediately, and now survive only as illustrations to puzzle and confuse instrument makers. Some, like the bandora, had a brief but honourable career. Others, like the violin, are still with us. Old instruments like the fiddle, rebec and gittern either went out of fashion and disappeared, or were changed beyond recognition.

The sixteenth century gave rise to the consort. The old idea of vocal polyphony, where several voices sing independent melodies which manage to fit together only through the consummate skill of the composer, was now transposed onto instruments, or combinations of instruments and voices. Almost all instruments were now made in a range of sizes from soprano to bass, to enable them to be played in matched consorts. The pre-eminent consort instruments were the viols, but everything from shawms to lutes were capable of being played in consort.

Fashionable ladies and gentlemen were now expected to be able to sing a part in a madrigal, or to play a part on a flute or viol. The texture became thicker and more complex as the sixteenth century progressed, in both vocal and instrumental writing. Three-part writing was common at the beginning of the century, and five or six parts was the norm at the end. Sopranino (above the soprano) and contrabass (below the bass) instruments were now often added to the makers' catalogues.

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