Before Purcell’s position in musical history can be ascertained and fixed, it is absolutely necessary to make some survey of the rise of the school of which he was the close.
In our unmusical England of to-day it is as hard to believe in an England where music was perhaps the dominant passion of the people as it is to understand how this should have been forgotten in a more musical age than ours. Until the time of Handel’s arrival in this country there was no book printed which did not show unmistakably that its writer loved music. It is a fact (as the learned can vouch) that Erasmus considered the English the most given up to music of all the peoples of Europe; and how far these were surpassed by the English is further shown by the fact that English musicians were as common in continental towns in those days as foreign musicians are in England nowadays. I refrain from quoting Peacham, North, Anthony Wood, Pepys, and the rest of the much over-quoted; but I wish to lay stress on the fact that here music was widespread and highly cultivated, just as it was in Germany in the eighteenth century. Moreover, an essential factor in the development of the German school was not wanting in England. Each German prince had his Capellmeister; and English nobles and gentlemen, wealthier than German princes, differing from them only in not being permitted to assume a pretentious title, had each his Musick-master. I believe I could get together a long list of musicians who were thus kept. It will be remembered that when Handel came to England he quickly entered the service of the Duke of Chandos. The royal court always had a number of musicians employed in the making or the performing of music. Oliver Cromwell retained them and paid them; Charles the Second added to them, and in many cases did not pay them at all, so that at least one is known to have died of starvation, and the others were everlastingly clamouring for arrears of salary. It was the business of these men (in the intervals of asking for their salaries) to produce music for use in the church and in the house or palace; that for church use being of course nearly entirely vocal—masses or anthems; that for house use, vocal and instrumental—madrigals and fancies (i.e. fantasias). As generation succeeded generation, a certain body of technique was built up and a mode of expression found; and at length the first great wave of music culminated in the works of Tallis and Byrde. Their technique and mode of expression I shall say something about presently; and all the criticism I have to pass on them is that Byrde is infinitely greater than Tallis, and seems worthy indeed to stand beside Palestrina and Sweelinck. Certainly anyone who wishes to have a true notion of the music of this period should obtain (if he can) copies of the D minor five-part mass, and the Cantiones Sacrae, and carefully study such numbers as the “Agnus Dei” of the former and the profound “Tristitia et anxietas” in the latter.