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  • Title: Music in The Whore of Babylon
  • Author: Barbara Zimbalit
  • Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
  • Coordinating editor: Brett Greatley-Hirsch
  • Research assistants: Shannon Ford, Natalie Giannini, Natalie Grand, Tara Pederen, Vanessa Rapatz, Keri Wolfe, Barbara Zimbalit

  • Copyright Vanessa Rapatz, Shannon Ford, Natalie Giannini, Natalie Grand, Tara Pederen, Keri Wolfe, and Barbara Zimbalit. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Barbara Zimbalit
    Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Music in The Whore of Babylon

    Music in The Whore of Babylon

    Barbara Zimbalist

    1The early years of the seventeenth century witnessed the emergence of a new musical aesthetic throughout Western Europe. The Baroque period (1600-1750) was characterized by an increase in solo song, the rise of opera, the proliferation of instrumental chamber music, and in England, the elaborately staged court masque. The Whore of Babylon eschews this Baroque milieu, however, in favor of an older, sixteenth-century musicality at odds with the musical climate at the time of its publication. References to voices, airs, and lays reveal Dekker's knowledge of the English musical heritage of part songs, anthems, madrigals, and motets which was largely vocal rather than instrumental; terminology such as "golden chords" (TLN 545) and "Choristers" (TLN 243, 403) evokes the polyphonic vocal practice (the simultaneous singing of several different musical lines) made popular by the Renaissance composers who had flourished during the previous century in England. More significantly, however, Dekker's explicit references to Tudor musical conventions highlight the play's allegorical stakes, functioning as metaphors both for the tensions between opposing religious traditions (and respective opposing musical traditions) in post-Reformation England, as well as for political commonalities that blur the distinction between the sixteenth- and seventeenth- centuries.

    After Henry VIII's break with Rome, the official religion of the realm fluctuated between Catholicism and Protestant Anglicanism, mirrored by the constant readjustments of liturgical music styles. While the Catholic musical tradition was elaborate, polyphonic, centered around the mass, and often involved instrumental music (usually performed on organ), the Anglican church privileged the Calvanist hymn tradition that emphasized the equality of text and music – and which downplayed polyphony in favor of straightforward homophonic lines in which the text could be clearly understood. As Nicholas Temperley has noted, "many of the texts of pre-Reformation polyphony – graduals, alleluias, tracts, sequences, antiphons, responsories – disappeared almost without trace" as the Church of England established itself under the Tudors (n.p.). In terms of secular music, however, England was late to join the Baroque trends of the seventeenth century. Court music was often suspended during the civil war and the interregnum (1642-1659), and it was only after the Restoration in 1660 that English vocal music began to exhibit styles and techniques already established in Europe. Dekker's musical vocabulary refers to the stylistic debates over sacred music of the Tudor period as well as the old-fashioned musical practices of seventeeth-century secular music, thus complicating attempts to distinguish between the past and the present in The Whore of Babylon.

    Throughout Dekker's play, music is represented and talked about as a tool to be used for persuasive purposes; most often, Babylonian characters use musical terminology metaphorically when discussing their plans to infiltrate and conquer Fairyland. The Empress of Babylon uses musical terminology in her instructions to the three Kings, commanding them to "Draw all your faces sweetly, let your browes / Be sleeked, your cheekes in dimples, giue out smiles, / Your voyces string with siluer, wooe (like louers)" (TLN 173-75). Musicality is here portrayed as an aid to deception, a tool used to persuade the rival queen to allow Babylonian spies into her court. This mirrors the situation in England during the sixteenth century; as Noel O'Regan explains, "in most denominations, music was recognised as a powerful if somewhat dangerous weapon, able to attract and sway men's souls, and thus subject to sometimes considerable ecclesiastical control" (283). The Empress' incorporation of musical terminology into her foreign policy instructions further blurs the lines between the sacred and the secular, the past and the present.

    The music of Babylon, if any exists, is not described in the play; but the music of Fairyland is often described in symbolic terms. The first Cardinal describes the English Anglicans as a group who unite ideologically as well as musically: "They are the kingdoms musicke, they the Organs, / Vnto whose sound her Anthems now are sung, / Set them but out of tune, alls out of square" (TLN 272-74). This reference to the English Anthem situates the play's action at the Protestant Tudor court while evoking, apparently contradictorily, the Catholic organ tradition.

    5The unaccompanied anthem was a Protestant musical innovation arising from the Reformation's emphasis on the text over the music; furthermore, Protestant tradition emphasized the communal activity of singing in the vernacular by the congregation and discouraged the use of Latin as the exclusive language of the clergy. The English anthem tradition reflected this philosophy; sacred music was increasingly composed for congregational singing at various points during the service rather than in strictly delineated movements like the Roman Catholic mass. Moreover, as Julie Ann Sadie has notes, "the verse anthem, first developed in Elizabethan times from the consort songs of choirboy plays [...] was particularly suitable for the almost domestic acoustics of the chapels at Whitehall and the other royal palaces" (263). While the Cardinal's words refer to one particular musical tradition from the past, however, his description of the same group as "organs" evokes the opposing tradition, since

    From around 1570 there is widespread evidence from all parts of the British Isles that, as a result of Puritan opposition, organs were removed and destroyed. With the revival of a High Church party in the early 17th century, led by William Laud, organs were returned to the cathedrals and collegiate churches, but not, it seems, to the parishes. (Owen et al, n.p.)

    While organs had long been a part of the Catholic tradition, then, they were recuperated by the Church of England during the seventeenth century, eventually coming to represent Anglican high church musical tradition. Music and its instruments, like many other aspects of English life during this time, could represent completely different – even opposing – concepts and affiliations from day to day and year to year. This multivalent description demonstrates the multivalent nature of Dekker's musical references and the difficulty for the reader in determining when the play's action occurs.

    Dekker's musical vocabulary displays a sense of historicity as well as an awareness of contemporary English musical life; the similarities between the two result in often ambiguous references that can appear confusing or indecipherable. But attention to the musical vocabulary reveals an atmosphere of ambiguous meanings that evokes a tempestuous age of constantly shifting religious loyalties and uncertain futures.