Continuity, change and the emergence of idiomatic organ repertoire in seventeenth-century England

David J. Smith

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


English keyboard music of the middle and late seventeenth century is usually considered in relation to what went before (the English virginalists) or to developments in the eighteenth century. The Civil War and Commonwealth is assumed to have had a detrimental effect on organ music with the removal of organs from churches. Rather than there being a decline in the quality of keyboard music after c. 1625 and a period of transition between the virginalists and late seventeenth-century composers, there was continuity in function and use of the keyboard throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The use of the organ in church was the same before and after the Interregnum, with verse and voluntary having designated roles within the liturgy. However, we should not assume that the voluntary and fantasia are more appropriate to the organ than other genres. It is more useful to distinguish between liturgical and secular performance contexts than between instruments. Byrd’s ‘Voluntary for My Ladye Nevell’ in My Ladye Nevells Booke is clearly intended for a domestic setting. Thomas Morley defines the fancy in terms of its freedom from pre-existing material. Although a piece such as Gibbons’s ‘Fantasia in Four Parts’ is found in many anthologies of organ music, Parthenia (London, 1613) contains a low A out of the range of organs of the early seventeenth century and is unambiguously a source of virginal music. Conversely, two secular works by Peter Philips have been appropriated for liturgical use in a continental manuscript. Salomon de Caus uses a madrigal setting by Philips, which we would consider a genre more appropriate to the virginal, in his plans for a water organ.
The organ performed in secular contexts throughout the period. John Bull played the organ for the King during a banquet in 1607. John Evelyn heard Christopher Gibbons play at Magdalen College in 1654; this organ was later removed for Oliver Cromwell’s personal use. The puritans objected only to the liturgical use of the organ. Organs were removed to taverns, and Pepys mentions the performance of a voluntary by a skilled organist in such a setting. Ironically, secular connotations of the organ proved to be an obstacle to its reinstatement in some churches after the Restoration.
The English virginalists all earned their living as organists. Throughout the period, amateurs played small-scale, simple pieces and professional organists performed voluntaries in church or tavern. Morley at one end of the period and Roger North at the other associate voluntary with improvisation, and John Butt argues that Purcell’s organ pieces are exemplars of improvisational practice. John Blow output of voluntaries reflects his teaching activity.
An early source, My Ladye Nevells Booke, has no instrumental designation. Carton’s duet is for virginal or organ. In Christ Church MS 1113, the toccatas in the Italian layer are for organ, while the corrente and partite are for virginals. After the Restoration, a greater distinction came to be made: for example, Locke includes six pieces specifically for the organ in his Melothesia. It is towards the end of the century that idiomatic organ genres begin to appear, influenced by French and Italian music and by continental developments in organ building.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStudies in English Organ Music
EditorsIain Quinn
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781315163857
ISBN (Print)9781138059139
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2018

Publication series

NameAshgate Historical Keyboard Series


  • Organ
  • English Organ Music


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