busy mole music

Makers of small harps, lyres and psalteries

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Printed and Recorded Music

Although the history of music is longer than its written and recorded form, music has always been part of our culture, originally handed down orally. A few fragments of music from the Classical Era survive, but the interpretation of the notation is subject to speculation. Most of the earliest recorded music is Sacred music: plainsong (plainchant), the works of Hildegard von Bingen among others.

Secular music was learnt and passed down orally at first, and the songs of the troubadours and trouveres were recorded as they were often commissioned by the nobility. Much of our Folk and Traditional music survives thanks to the work of people like Cecil Sharp and R Vaughan Williams in collecting and recording this music.


While secular music may not have been recorded it will have influenced the sacred, with songs such as those written by the Monks of Monserrat (Music for the Black Madonna) where the songs of the pilgrims became adapted for the religious.

There is a large recorded repertoire of songs and dances available.  Gothic Voices have produced a selection of CDs that showcase the variety and international nature of medieval music with selections from across Europe while perhaps not such widely known artists such as Trouvere, the Troubadors, Mediva and  The Bardos Band produce a further range of Medieval Music. ‘The Mirror of Narcissus’ (Gothic Voices) contains ‘Douce Dame Jolie’, a beautiful, haunting song of courtly love. 

‘A Dance in the Garden of Mirth’ (Dufay Collective – Chandos) shows the influence of the Middle East on European dance music.

Tudor and Renaissance

The first printed Secular music was produced in 1530, but was not readily available outside the nobility until after the English Civil War.

Broadside Ballads were printed and sold as a comment on the times and a satire, (Penny Merriments – Naxos, Broadside Ballads – Faber)

The complete Playford (Complete Country Dance Tunes – Faber) records a compendium of dances and songs of the time while Dowland, Gibbons, Tomkins and Mundy show us the music of the Elizabethan and Stuart Court.(Nigel North. Lute Music – Naxos)

The City Waites ‘ How the world Wags’ (Hyperion) is an entertaining snapshot of the life of a 17th Century Gentleman.

The York Waites and the Oxford Waites, (Waites being in effect Municipal Musicians), produce instrumental music and song, from Richard the Third to the 18th Century.

Harry Christophers The Sixteen perform wonderful and atmospheric Sacred Choral works on their label CORO.

This era is famous for structured and decorated music such as keyboard music by Handel and JS Bach and music for string orchestra (The Four Seasons – Vivaldi).

This was also the time for the Baroque Concerto with a solo instrument – the mandolin, violin or recorder among others. (Linn Records, Pamela Thorby – Baroque Recorder Concertos; Red Priest- Pirates of the Caribbean; Corelli Christmas Concertos, Harmonia Mundi; Vivaldi Mandolin Concertos).

The relatively new form of Opera was increasingly popular( Lully - Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Les Noces de Villa; Henry Purcell -  The Indian Queen) and Oratorio (Handel’s Messiah, Bach St Matthew Passion).

Lully, a composer at the French court of the Sun King was the first composer to die of an industrial injury by developing septicaemia by banging the staff he used for conducting down onto his foot during a performance. (Musique d’abord label – Petits Motets, Grand Motets, highlights from Atys).

There is also a wide range of popular music, for example: the Stage Jig – ‘ Musical comedies from the 16th and 17th centuries for the Merriment and Delight of Wise Men and the Ignorant ‘ (The City Waits. The Stage Jig, Hyperion), The Beggars Opera by John Gay (musique d’abord), and Catches (The Singing Club - The Catch Club - The Glee Club (Ravenscroft, Lawes, Purcell, Arne, Bishop, Pearsall, Barnby, Smith, etc – musique d’abord).

Lute music continued to be popular as the recordings by Nigel North show. (Baroque Lute and Bach on the Lute on the Linn label).



Traditional or Folk Music  was transmitted through an oral tradition, songs were acquired by memorising them. The style and content was usually related to national or regional culture or identity, or commemorated historical and personal events. Music transmitted by word of mouth through a community will, in time, develop many variants, because this kind of transmission cannot produce word-for-word and note-for-note accuracy. Indeed, many traditional singers are quite creative and deliberately modify the material they learn.

In the 19th century efforts were made to collect and preserve the music of the people. One such effort was the collection by Francis James Child in the late 19th century of the texts of over three hundred ballads in the English and Scots traditions (called the Child Ballads). Cecil Sharp  worked in the early 20th century to preserve a great body of English rural traditional song, music and dance, under the aegis of what became and remains the  English Folk Dance and Song Society. Sharp also worked in America, recording the traditional songs of the Appalachian Mountains in 1916-1918. At around the same time, composers of classical music ;developed a strong interest in traditional song collecting, and a number of outstanding composers carried out their own field work on traditional song. These included Percy Grainger and Ralph Vaughan Williams in England and Béla Bartók in Hungary. These composers, like many of their predecessors, incorporated traditional material into their classical compositions.

Recordings and sheet music are widely available: Suzanne Guldimann’s ‘TheThree Ravens’ and ‘Hearts of Oak’ contain a wide selection of songs with accompaniments suitable for playing on a small harp or piano. ‘The Village Band’ and ‘English Dance Music’  by Serpent Press contain traditional tunes.  Bejo and Brewhouse Music produce CDs of folk music, by artists such as The Mollyhawks, Alva, Magpie Lane and the Melstock Band. Horses Brawl have fused Traditional and Early music to great effect.


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