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“If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it…”
These lines open William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and may be taken almost literally as representing the universal feelings of the Elizabethan age. The whole world seemed to sing, and sang of love. But there were songs about other subjects too – when the poets and musicians could bear to take their minds off love.

The Elizabethan world came alive with the sound of music. For the Elizabethan gentleman skill in music was as indispensable as skill in sports or reading Latin. Ordinary men and women were ashamed if they could not take part in the singing of a madrigal. As one writer of the time put it, even a journeyman shoemaker had to be able “to sound the trumpet, to play upon the flute, and bear his part in a three-man’s song, and readily reckon his tools in rhyme”.

Some Elizabethan songs are beautifully clear; others are fantastic and elaborate. Some are frivolous; others sober and serious. There seem to be, in fact, enough kinds to suit every possible taste or mood.

contributed by Gifford, Katya

5 June 2002

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