“The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Protestant Ideology, and Musical Literacy in Elizabethan England”

Dissertation defense date: March 8, 2018

The Whole Booke of Psalmes, first published in 1562, was not only the English Reformation’s primary hymnal, but also by far England’s most popular printed music book in the sixteenth century. In addition to its identities as scriptural text and monophonic musical score, the WBP made a significant contribution toward the development of musical literacy in Elizabethan England. In this dissertation, I explore the WBP’s attempt, motivated by Protestant ideology, to promote musical literacy for the common people, as well as the psalter’s contribution to music theory in early modern England. Its publisher, John Day, made a concerted and ultimately highly successful claim to monarchical authorization and religious authority for the WBP. This made the WBP the most prominent guide to a Protestant musical aesthetic for the common people. According to the WBP, the English Protestant musical identity was characterized by communal singing of easy monophonic melodies, particularly by the laity rather than clergy and musical professionals; a broad selection of appropriate texts that encompassed Scripture (particularly the psalms), liturgical canticles, and catechetical texts; regular singing both devotionally as a household and as a congregation in church settings; and with instrumental accompaniment. Musical literacy was an imperative: if being a Protestant meant becoming an active part of musical worship, then it was crucial to teach all the laity to sing well, enabling them to fully inhabit that identity.

For this reason, many of the 143 editions published from 1562 to 1603 contained one of features intended to teach basic musical literacy: a letter to the reader which served as an introductory music theory treatise, and a special font that assigned solmization syllables to individual pitches for ease of sight-reading, which was accompanied by its own single-page explanatory preface. These made the WBP unique among the music-theoretical works produced in sixteenth-century England, the prefaces being neither the sort of introductory essays found in instrumental instruction books nor freestanding music theory textbooks. These two forms of music educational aid emphasized sight-singing but not improvisation or composition, critical topics in other sixteenth-century English music theory treatises. Their content was simple and accessible, with the goal of educating their common readers in the musical skills necessary for the singing of psalms, and both prefaces employed religious language that gave sacred meaning to music education. Indeed, the WBP’s simplified solmization system made an important advance in the history of music theory, one that has up until now been thought to originate nearly half a century later with music theorists Thomas Morley and William Bathe at the end of the sixteenth century. Yet as we know from early Jacobean documents and practices, the average early seventeenth-century churchgoer still could not read music. I contend that the failure of the WBP’s didactic content was due to music printing errors that significantly hindered the psalter’s capacity to increase musical literacy.