I’m writing a scene set in a London merchant’s house, where the family and guests are gathered after supper to entertain themselves. As so often, I’ve gone back to Claudius Hollyband’s Dialogues, reproduced in The Elizabethan Home, for inspiration.
Sure enough, after some lively discussion around the table about food and, inevitably, the weather, the host (Father) suggests a song and sends Katherine (his daughter?) to his closet. His music books are locked in a chest and contain some songs in four parts. Roland is to sing with David as bass, John the tenor and James the treble.
‘Give me some white wine,’ Roland says, ‘that will cause me to sing clearer’, and there follows some joshing about what and how much to drink. ‘If I should not drink, I should become as dry as a gammon of bacon hung on a chimney.’
The song they choose turns out to be a drinking song, of course. I can’t read music, but I’d be interested to know if the music recorded is actually a tune or not!
Music seems to have been a particular pleasure of the time, and this little excerpt shows that it was quite normal for guests to be able to read music and sing their parts. Many households had musical instruments as well. A wealthy household like the one in my story might well have had a lute like the one Queen Elizabeth is playing here, and even some virginals to accompany any songs.
Hollyband’s dialogues were written to contain as much vocabulary to be translated to and from French as possible, but in doing so he offers wonderful glimpses of everyday life in an Elizabethan citizen’s home. They give an impression of lively conversation, and it’s easy to imagine the friends sitting at table, joking with each other and singing together.