Masque and music at the Stuart court

Henrietta Maria and Charles I loved to present masques - great spectacles of dance, music, poetry and drama.

The royal couple were famously great lovers of the arts, and music, painting, poetry and drama flourished at their cultured court. Courtiers were expected to play at least one musical instrument, dance well, and take part in masques. These were great court spectacles which combined music with dancing, poetry, scenery, and dramatic costume. The first Stuart king, James I, and his queen, Anne of Denmark staged many court masques. As princes, their sons, the future Charles I and his elder brother Henry (who died at eighteen) often took part in masques, many written by the playwright Ben Jonson.

Who designed the scenery for court masques?

Inigo Jones, the architect of the Queen's House, designed elaborate and dramatic scenery, involving moving parts and other special effects for many masques. He designed a rocky landscape set for Oberon, a masque written in 1611 by Ben Jonson for the sixteen-year old Prince Henry, with music and dance by Alfonso Ferabrusco and Robert Johnson.

What type of stories did masques present?

Stories often linked the Stuart court to the legendary King Arthur or to Imperial Rome.

Themes were planned to 'portray the English Court's Divine Image as it should be in this our Golden Age'. For instance, in Oberon, the first actors to appear were a group of satyrs. Representing the forces of disorder, they danced and leapt around until the rocks parted to reveal the 'bright and glorious' palace of Oberon, king of the fairies.

Characters such as the satyrs were known as 'Anti-Masquers' and were played by professional actors – in this case, the King's Men, Shakespeare's company. Next, the palace itself opened up to reveal the Knights Masquers with Prince Henry taking the part of Oberon in his chariot. The forces of harmony had arrived to drive away vice and disorder. The fairies chanted 'of every virtue of a King, and of all, in him, we sing'. As the prince invited the Queen to dance, other members of the aristocratic audience joined in the various galliards and courantes until 'Phosphorus, the day star appeared and called them away.' The masque ended with a final song.

Did masques continue after Charles I succeeded his father?

Yes. Charles I and his young queen Henrietta Maria loved presenting masques for each other. Both enjoyed wearing the costumes of Chief Masquers. Masques often took place in winter in the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall designed by Inigo Jones in 1619. However, after Rubens completed his ceiling painting in honour of James I in 1634, the hall could not be used in case smoke from the masquers' torches damaged it.

When were masques discontinued?

In 1640, a masque was held that was to be the last, for they did not resume after the civil war ended. Ironically, the pageant of Charles I's execution took place outside the Banqueting Hall, scene of so many masques. The court where the King had been seen as 'the embodiment of all virtues' had changed forever.

How important was music at the Stuart court?

Music was a central part of court life. It had been regarded since the Renaissance as one of the four 'liberal arts', alongside geometry, arithmetic and astronomy. Architecture was also linked to these. All used simple number ratios to create 'perfect' intervals, harmonies or proportions. Such ratios were seen as proof of God's existence.

During the period of Baroque music (1600-1750), the human voice played a central part. Composers used a single melodic line with harmonic accompaniment to allow the human voice to be clearly heard. This technique is known as homophony.

What sort of dances were popular at the time?

Dances for formal occasions were often composed in suites of four dances each with a different tempo. For instance, a moderate tempo allemande might start off the dancing, and be followed by a faster courante, then a slow sarabande and finally a lively gigue or jig.

What musical instruments were used at the Stuart court?

The lute, the viol, the harpsichord and virginal were all popular instruments because they were especially suitable to accompany the human voice.

Sometimes called the 'King of instruments', the lute was shaped like half a pear, with strings, usually in pairs, that were plucked. John Dowland (1562-1626) composed some wonderful music for the lute.

The viol was a bowed instrument played in an upright position. Its mellow and even tone was also very good for accompanying the human voice. By the end of the 17th century, the lighter and more lively violin had replaced the viol, being better suited to the sound of Restoration music.

The keyboard instruments often used at this time were the harpsichord and the virginal, which looked like small pianos. The latter was particularly popular in England and was reputed to be the favourite instrument of Queen Elizabeth I. The virginal had strings running parallel to the keyboard and was light enough to carry. Samuel Pepys testified to its popularity, portability and value in the account in his diary on the night of the Great Fire of London, 2nd September 1666. 'I observed that hardly one lighter or boat in three that has the goods of a house in, but there was a pair of virginals in it!'

The wooden flute and recorder were also popularly used at this time, often to accompany lively songs and dances such as the jig. Played on their own or together as a consort, they were often heard in the halls of great houses, but also in humbler houses, to entertain guests and the household.

Towards the end of the century, ordinary citizens became wealthier and many more could afford to buy instruments like the virginals and viol. This led to more secular music being written and performed by both amateurs and professionals. Gradually, the masque gave way to new musical drama in the form of operas and operettas. Many of these came from Italy but some, such as Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, were written by English composers and proved popular with all sections of the community.