AN ELIZABETHAN MASTERPIECE
The University of Sydney Library has recently acquired, by private sale, a copy of the important Elizabethan work A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, written by Thomas Morley and published in London by Peter Short at the Sign of the Starre in Breedstreet in 1597. Since no other original copy of this treatise was held in an Australian Library, it was regarded as being of such great significance that attempts be made to keep this particular book in the country and to make it available to scholars and students, and the money for this purchase was put together from a combination of various endowment and bequest funds. The benefits that can derive from firsthand access to sixteenth-century musical materials have often been denied to Australian students of the period, and it was felt that the acquisition of this exceptionally rare book, only thirty-one copies being recorded in overseas institutions and only one copy of the first edition being offered for sale in the last few decades, would be of some assistance in rectifying this situation.
Thomas Morley (1577-1602), alongside William Byrd and John Dowland, was perhaps the pre-eminent composer of vocal music in the last years of the reign of Elizabeth I, and certainly its leading historian and theorist. According to Grove,1 Morley, employed at St. Paul’s and appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1592, today holds perhaps “the first place in esteem of all the Elizabethan composers”. Morley published his first set of part-songs in 1593 and continued to be concerned with printing and publishing music, for which he was to be granted a share in the monopoly in 1598. His First Booke of Ayres (1600), for example, known from only an imperfect copy at the Folger Library, includes a setting of “It was a lover and his lass”, a song that appears in As You Like It, one of the few pieces of original music for Shakespeare’s plays which have survived.
Morley also wrote music for the liturgy of the Church of England: service settings, psalm settings, and a number of Latin motets, partly under the influence of Byrd and partly an indication of his own religious convictions. More importantly however, it is as a composer of madrigals, imitated from Italian models, that Morley has become more widely known. He has become to be regarded as the true founder of the English madrigal school.
The Plaine and Easie Introduction is, by far, the most important contemporary piece written on music theory in Elizabethan times, and is an indispensable work for students of the period. It is still held in high regard some four hundred years after its first publication. The book, dedicated to William Byrd, is written in a dialogue form, and some of its greatest value may lie in the sidelights which it throws on contemporary musical life. It also contains, along with eight original compositions by Morley, chiefly motets, valuable information on the compositional techniques of the period, and about contemporary musicians and performance practice. A number of academics, from both within and without The University of Sydney, have already signalled their intention to use the book in the preparation and presentation of their courses.
The form of the book itself is that of a folio in eights, and the title page is contained within an elaborate historiated woodcut border which includes the figures of Time, Ptolemy, Strabo and Musica among others. The first recorded use of this border was in 1559 in a work entitled The Cosmographical Glasse,2 and the publisher Short was to reuse this border for three other works in the next four years, all of which he was to issue under the assigns of Morley. Also included throughout the text are many woodcut illustrations and letterpress examples of music. Two of these pages are printed in red and black and a third page has a brief example in red and black to explain the four manners of pricking “in old time”.
This rare book has been in private hands in Australia since late last century when it was purchased by a Mr William Gibbes. It is not known from whom he acquired the work. From William Gibbes it passed to his daughter Dorothy A. Gibbes whose signature appears on one of the fly leaves. Dorothy Gibbes was one of the first students at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where she commenced her studies in 1915. On her death, in the late 1960’s, the book was bequeathed to the last owner, one of Dorothy Gibbes’ former pupils and a friend of longstanding. It was this owner who offered the book to the University early in 1999.
The chance to acquire a copy of any Morley musical treatise is rare and the news that the University was acquiring this copy aroused great interest in music institutions around Australia. It is hoped that this book will continue to provide a source of inspiration and study for Australian students for another four hundred years.
Neil Boness, Rare Book & Special Collections Librarian, University of Sydney
1 The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan, 1980, s.v.
2 McKerrow, R.B. & Ferguson, F.S. Title-page Borders Used in England & Scotland 1845-1640. London: The Bibliographical Society, 1932, p.9.