Ross W. Duffin. The Music Treatises of Thomas Ravenscroft: 'Treatise of Practicall Musick' and A Briefe Discourse.
As part of the Music Theory in Britain, 1500-1700: Critical Editions series, this edition of Thomas Ravenscroft's theoretical works, with accompanying introductory materials, is a welcome addition to the growing body of knowledge in this relatively new area of study. A significant value of this book is in its bringing together, for the first time, the two Ravenscroft treatises--a manuscript given the title "A Treatise of Practicall Musicke" (1607) and A Briefe Discourse (1612). As valuable is the careful study of each treatise, an update of Ravenscroft's biography, and an explication of this Jacobean theorist's spheres of influence.
Scholars have had difficulty putting forth a credible biography of Ravenscroft, but Ross Duffin adds to the "meager remains of Ravenscroft's life in the documentary record" (1) by bringing forth new evidence. For example, the question of Ravenscroft's birth date has troubled past scholars, resulting in potential birth years of 1582, '83, '87, '88, '89, '90, and '92. Duffin convincingly settles on early 1591, based upon the veracity of the commendatory contributions in Ravenscroft's publication, A Briefe Discourse, as well as the theorist's own account of London as a place of early training (6). Ravenscroft's time at St. Paul's as a chorister and at Gresham College attending lectures impacted his life as a professional musician. Though his degree is from Pembroke College (at Cambridge), three other places--St. Paul's, Gresham, and the culture of London--formed him as a composer and theorist. Ravenscroft spent his career in London: at various times with the Gentleman Extraordinary, as music master and overseer of psalm-singing at Christ's Hospital near St. Paul's, and as a member of the London theatrical community. Through a newly discovered document, Duffin sheds light on Ravenscroft's post-orphanage career, where in 1622 he entered the service of the Lord High Treasurer of England, Richard Weston. Here he remained until 1630, where he either passed away or, as Duffin speculates, entered the service of Lord Craven, with whom he had become reacquainted during his time as deputy of Weston.
Duffin additionally locates Ravenscroft within two circles--St. Paul's Cathedral and Pembroke Hall, Cambridge--and with the dedicatees of his volumes--Senators of Gresham College who were also members of Mercers' Company and officials within the City of London. He further draws connections between Ravenscroft and the professors at Gresham College and Ravenscroft's commenders. Of undoubted influence on Ravenscroft while at St. Paul's was Edward Pearce, teacher of music fundamentals, singing, composition, and instruments. He was one of two influences cited by Ravenscroft in his Preface to A Briefe Discourse. The other is John Bennet, a madrigalist who is cited as "a partner in this worke" (127). Ravenscroft had high praise for Bennet's work, though it is unclear how his compositions might have contributed to Ravenscroft's theoretical work.
The most logical option for influence on Ravenscroft at Gresham is John Bull, who delivered the twice-weekly lecture on music. With no record of Bull's lectures, though, it is difficult to say what Ravenscroft may have specifically gained from this instruction. It is possible Ravenscroft heard other lecturers at Gresham, but according to surviving lectures, one of the next teachers, John Taverner, provided nothing of musical content. Duffin cites Lillian Ruff as suggesting Ravenscroft's A Briefe Discourse was published "in part to position himself as a candidate to replace Taverner" (32-33).
Duffin argues that the nine printed commendations in A Briefe Discourse were meant to establish Ravenscroft's credibility. Aside from three commendations for A Plaine and Easie Introduction by the well-known Thomas Morley, no other treatise before Ravenscroft's had even one commendation. Ravenscroft was young, with only a handful of publications, so he "felt the need to demonstrate that respected authorities viewed his work as valuable" (36). In one of the most important of these, Robert Fludd provides significant information regarding Ravenscroft--the age when he received his degree (14) and the age when he wrote the commendation (22, which is likely when A Briefe Discourse was published). A few other commenders are especially noteworthy: Nathaniell Gyles had similar interests to Ravenscroft in mensuration signs and proportions, while John Dowland shared an affinity for traditional notational practices. A number of the commenders (Rosseter, Peerson, Austin) had connections with the theatrical world in London, though it would have been helpful for this network to be revealed to a greater extent, even if the documentation regarding Ravenscroft's involvement is scant. While it is understandable that certain of the commenders would have in fact increased Ravenscroft's credibility, such as Campion, for others it was less clear. One wonders whether there is something more at stake than increasing credibility in the choice of commenders.
One of the most interesting of Ravenscroft's connections that Duffin discovers is with Richard Mulcaster, schoolmaster while Ravenscroft was at St. Paul's. Mulcaster's unique views on education impacted the theorist in a number of ways: "[Mulcaster's] intense and very public concern for the right way to educate young people may well have ignited Ravenscroft's passion for the proper teaching of the fundamentals of music, and given him the idea to write a treatise in the first place" (19). This may explain the particular focus of the treatise, and Mulcaster's published books may have served as models for an approach to organizing a didactic treatise (19).
Concerning the "Treatise of Practicall Musicke," Duffin sheds light on the purpose and date behind this work. The manuscript may have been copied in connection with the theorist's studies with Edward Pearce at Gresham. It may also have been a fair copy for a printer, though it was never published as far as we know, perhaps due to the lack of connections of the young author, the work's dependence upon the earlier Pathway to Musicke (1596) of William Barley, or the significant number of errors in the treatise (51 n. 3). It is unclear whether Ravenscroft copied some, all, or none of the manuscript. The date of the treatise is also in question. Linking the treatise with Ravenscroft's degree does not particularly help, since the date the degree was granted is also uncertain. Through a careful study of Ravenscroft's use of two peculiar word formulations, Duffin narrows the date to 1607. This does not differ from traditionally assigned dates, but provides needed confirmation.
No English authorities and only one Continental authority (Seth Calvisius) are cited by Ravenscroft, though Duffin demonstrates how the author borrows language from William Bathe, William Barley, and Robert Fludd in his treatise. Though also dependent on Continental theorists (Calvisius, Ornithoparcus, and Lossius), there are enough misunderstandings of this material and misuse of Latin to suggest that the author was "not fully invested in the material" (60).
Unlike the "Treatise of Practicall Musicke," Ravenscroft cites a number of authorities in A Briefe Discourse, most likely for their similar attitude toward traditional music and practice. Ravenscroft "sees the re-establishment of traditional, correct mensural practices as a key to 'proper' music-making" (64). German sources are used nearly exclusively, with a relative lack of English sources. It is perhaps more telling whom Ravenscroft does not cite--Campion, nor Dowland. Though Duffin notes this lack of citations, he did not suggest why this was the case (particularly since both Campion and Dowland were commenders of the volume) nor why Thomas Morley is Ravenscroft's favored English theorist.
In considering the "Treatise of Practicall Musicke" as a source, Duffin argues that Ravenscroft's manuscript treatise served as preparation for A Briefe Discourse (67). Furthermore, he implies a manuscript/ publication relationship when he notes how "Ravenscroft decided to omit almost all of the first half of the manuscript when he came to publish his treatise a few years later" (68). At the same time, however, Duffin expresses throughout the introduction that A Briefe Discourse was largely drawn from other sources. Only one portion of A Briefe Discourse is considered to be wholly Ravenscroft's--the middle section, where citations were limited and the content revolved around the author's perceived misuse of one aspect of the mensural notation system, that of perfect prolation. "This is material that Ravenscroft believes he knows well, has his own opinions about, and concerning which he does not feel the same need to cite other authorities" (68).
Concerning the legacy of the treatises, both historians Sir John Hawkins and Charles Burney in the later part of the eighteenth century discussed Ravenscroft's theoretical work in less than glowing terms. These discussions were the first mention of the works since their writing. Duffin sums up the situation well: "Ravenscroft does seem to have labored in vain, and his fascination with the lost intricacies of the mensural system, undoubtedly acquired through serious academic study, ... was overwhelmed by the tide of a newer, simpler notational usage" (70). Ravenscroft includes in A Briefe Discourse a music anthology (Harmonicall Examples, with his own works and those of John Bennet and Edward Pearce). Though these examples were meant to be demonstrations of the mensurations discussed in the treatise, they actually failed to support the message Ravenscroft was providing in his writing--the necessity to return to traditional mensuration practices. As Duffin astutely notes, "a demonstration of how knowledge of ancient mensural practices was not entirely necessary to the performance and enjoyment of these pieces probably undermined Ravenscroft's attempt to restore the 'proper' usage, and may actually have contributed to the lack of regard for A Brief Discourse, both at the time and in the decades following" (75).
Duffin's textual commentary on the two treatises explains the source of the specific content, demonstrates Ravenscroft's errors in understanding other sources or creating his own concepts, and (less often) explains or interprets the material itself. These notes are excellent, and combined with the careful reproduction of each treatise give the careful reader an understanding of the works that cannot be gained elsewhere. For example, the difference between Ravenscroft and other theorists is seen in how he avoided terminology used by Morley (a 'prick' in the center of the O or C) because of embarrassment over the sexual innuendo put forth in a poem written after Morley's treatise. In another case, A Briefe Discourse includes moments where Ravenscroft seems well aware of the changing nature of musical practice, that his insistence on traditional mensural usage goes against such practice, and that he affirms present practice in spite of it all. He states "These 2. Perfect moodes in these dayes are of little or not vse, and therefore I haue little to say to them concerning their Diminutions" (139). Duffin calls this a "rather surprising nod to contemporary practice" (157 n. 70), comparing this to Ravenscroft's rather different stance in his earlier "Treatise of Practicall Musicke."
While Duffin's explication of the treatises is one of the gifts of this edition, it is primarily located only in the textual commentary. This profitably brings the reader in direct contact with Ravenscroft's two works, but it also somewhat hides valuable information and perspectives from the reader. If some of the content from the notes could have been brought into the Introduction (as a thorough summary of the content of the treatises), it would have aided the reader in determining what is theoretically or historically significant in the treatises. That said, if the intent of the Introduction was to provide context only, and to let the treatises speak for themselves (with the aid of the commentary), then the format of the edition functions well.
In summary, this edition provides an excellent rendering of the treatises, and the textual commentary enables greater depth of understanding of Ravenscroft's work. By itself, the updating of the theorist's biography and the articulation of the rich context of influences on him are invaluable. The edition is a welcome asset for those who have an interest in English theory, the larger topic of the development of music theory in the seventeenth century, English music as it relates to theory, or the social history of education, theatre, and culture in and around London.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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