One song to the tune of another: early music common practice, 800 years before Humph

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A classic Clue line-up, left to right: Tim Brooke-Taylor, Humphrey Lyttelton, Barry Cryer, Willie Rushton, Graeme Garden.

Listeners to BBC Radio 4’s long-running antidote to panel games, I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, will be familiar with the round, one song to the tune of another. The joke is predicated on us being used to thinking ‘These are the words and this is the tune and they belong together’. The uniting of these separated elements is made funnier by an extreme contrast of styles: the words of Girlfriend In A Coma to the tune of Tiptoe Through The Tulips; the words of A Whiter Shade of Pale to the tune of The Muppet Show; the words of Ugly Duckling to the tune of Harry Nilsson’s Without You.

The stock-in-trade of the show is satire, the programme itself being a satire of panel games. Clue has been going since 1972, chaired for nearly all of that time by late jazz trumpeter, Humphrey Lyttelton, known to cast and listeners as Humph. What Humph and the rest of the panel may not have known is that the principle of one song to the tune of another, with sometimes wildly contrasting words fitted to the same tune, was widely used in early music, the earliest evidence for which stretches back 800 years before even Humph was on air. This article, with illustrative music videos, traces the history of the practice from 16th and 17th century broadside ballads back to medieval carols, to songs with both secular and religious sets of words, and to the iconoclastic musical comedy of the goliards.

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The trees they do grow high: a ballad of medieval arranged marriage?

wedding1500The trees they do grow high is an originally Scottish ballad about an arranged child marriage, also known as The trees they grow so high, My bonny lad is young but he’s growing, Long a-Growing, Daily Growing, Still Growing, The Bonny Boy, and Lady Mary Ann. The song was very popular in the oral tradition in Scotland, England, Ireland, and the U.S.A. from the 18th to the 20th century. Questions about its true age (medieval?), the basis of its story (based on an actual marriage?) and its original author (Robert Burns?) have attracted conjectural claims. This article investigates the shifting narrative of the story over its lifetime and sifts the mere claims from the substantiated evidence.

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Baroque music: a brief tour of the extravagant last period of early music

Robert Tournières, Concert, France, 1690s, showing a baroque cello, virginals, singer, violin, and French baroque lute.
Robert Tournières, Concert, France, 1690s, showing a baroque cello, virginal, singer, violin, and French baroque lute.

The baroque period was a time of ornate decoration, extravagance and the rise of ever larger ensembles, giving rise to opera and the early orchestra. Dance music was as popular as ever, with the renaissance galliard giving way to the baroque sarabande, chaconne, and bourée. Dancing was briefly in trouble, banned by the Puritans, during which John Playford started a remarkable series of English dance instruction books which outlived Puritan censoriousness. Singing styles among the cultural elite were florid and declamatory, while broadside ballads for the masses continued to be sung and sold in the streets and at public hangings. And, in private, John Playford and his companions met to sing about farting.

Baroque is the final period of early music (medieval, renaissance, baroque) and this is the last of 3 articles charting them. This article includes 15 illustrative videos for the music of Robert Johnson, John Blow, Tobias Hume, Thomas Arne, John Playford, Claudio Monteverdi, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Johann Sebastian Bach (click green links).

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Music of the renaissance: a whistle-stop tour

RenaissancePeriodThe renaissance marked a turning point for European culture. Beginning in Italy in the 14th century, its influence spread across Europe, affecting all aspects of culture, including music. But it was in England that the sound of the renaissance first developed, spreading out to Burgundy, Italy, and then back to England in new forms. The invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy profoundly affected music-making, with musicians in households now able to write down music, use the new printed songbooks of composers such as John Dowland, and sing from broadside ballad sheets sold in the street. The spread of printing and literacy also affects our own knowledge of the period, with surviving instructions for dances and a wealth of music. Includes 14 active links to videos of musical examples, illustrating the text.

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Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 3 of 3: Music

The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune

Left to right: Adrien le Roy, French lutenist, one composer of passamezzo antico; William Kimber, English morris dancer and concertina player, one player of Bacca Pipes; Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer of Fantasia on Greensleeves; John Coltrane, jazz saxophonist, and Nomansland, trance dance band, both performers of Greensleeves.
Left to right: Adrien le Roy, French lutenist, one composer of a passamezzo antico; William Kimber, English morris dancer and concertina player, one player of Bacca Pipes; Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer of Fantasia on Greensleeves; John Coltrane, jazz saxophonist, and Nomansland, trance dance band, both performers of Greensleeves.

Greensleeves has captured the imagination of musicians for well over four centuries, testified by innumerous versions. This, the third of three articles about the mythology, history and music of Greensleeves, gives an audio flavour of the remarkable versatility and vitality of the melody and song, an à la carte menu to choose from. We begin with versions of the passamezzo antico and romanesca which are the foundation of Greensleeves; then advance to the song on period instruments; the Playford dance; two Greensleeves morris dances; the Christmas song; Ralph Vaughan Williams’ classical version; then a range of more modern interpretations: folk, blues, bluegrass, country, pop, rock, punk, black metal, jazz, flamenco, disco, trance, dubstep, Vietnamese ballet … and the ice cream van tune.

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Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 2 of 3: History

The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune  

One of the first sources for the tune, in lute tablature as greene sleues in MS. 408/2, an anonymous amateur anthology dated c. 1592–1603.
One of the first sources for the tune, in lute tablature as greene sleues in MS. 408/2, an anonymous amateur anthology dated c. 1592–1603. (All images, click for higher resolution.)

Greensleeves is well over four centuries old and is, even now, still going strong. This is a song first published in 1580, its tune used for a wide variety of other 16th and 17th century broadside ballads; used as the basis for virtuoso lute playing; that William Shakespeare used for a sophisticated joke; a tune that John Playford published for dancing to; that morris dancers still jig and kick bottoms to; that has become a Christmas favourite; and that pop singers continue to sing. This is the second of three articles, looking at the song’s mythology, its true history, and video examples of its musical transformations.

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Greensleeves: Mythology, History and Music. Part 1 of 3: Mythology

The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune

101_JanePALMERGreensleeves, composed anonymously in 1580, is a song which has been a magnet for fanciful claims. This article examines the claims that Henry VIII wrote it for Anne Boleyn; that Lady Greensleeves was a loose woman or a prostitute; and that the song has Irish origins. This is the first of three articles, looking at the song’s mythology; its true history; and video examples of its musical transformations.

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