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"A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musick." London: Printed by William Godbid for John Playford, 1666. []

Rebel Music Publisher, Honest John Playford at 400!

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The following is a guest post by Music Division Reference Librarian Dr. Stacey Jocoy.

If you know the tunes to ”Greensleeves,” ”Lillibullero,” or just about any traditional British tune, you should thank John Playford (1623-1687). Known today primarily for the Playford Dances—originally published as ”The English Dancing Master” in 1650/1, Playford was the most important music publisher of seventeenth-century England. His series of music collections and primers continued into the 1750s and were the basis for music collections and teaching aids long after. But this might not have happened were it not for a warrant for his arrest in 1649.

Like many London citizens of the period, Playford was impacted by the public execution of King Charles I on January 30, 1649. Along with other young booksellers, he had published many political pamphlets and finally a version of the ”Eikon Basilike,” the so-called spiritual autobiography of the late king, understood as a sympathetic royalist response. This publication resulted in a warrant for Playford’s arrest and prompted a short period of silence. When Playford returned in 1650, it was with a very different profile. The political publications ceased, and he began to focus exclusively on music books. “The English Dancing Master” with 105 dance tunes was the first major publication in what would become Playford’s vast catalog of musical offerings.

What made this publication so special for its time was the presence of popular tunes without their associated lyrics. Popular music of that time, mainly drawn from stage entertainments and street ballads, was very rarely published with music. One of the only publications to make earlier, Elizabethan tunes available before Playford was Thomas Ravenscroft’s collections, ”Pammelia” (1609), ”Deuteromelia” (1609), and ”Melismata” (1611), some forty years earlier. Just making these tunes available was a bold venture on Playford’s part but printing them with convivial dances rather than potentially inflammatory texts was innovative, bordering on genius. The first publishing run sold out quickly and was followed by reprints and new editions of the collection, later retitled simply ”The Dancing Master,” from 1652 forward.

“The Dancing Master; or, Directions for dancing country dances, with the tunes to each dance, for the treble violin.“ 10th ed. Corrected; with addition of several new dances and tunes never before printed. London: Printed by J. Heptinstall, for H. Playford, 1698.

Playford’s dances helped to launch his publishing house with its associated bookselling business and established the beginning of a viable music market in England. But how did he get the music in the first place and why was it so popular? Although he likely had a musical background through the cathedral school in his hometown of Norfolk, it is unlikely that Playford collected the tunes with their dances himself. He was most likely given the material to publish by his former master John Benson, who was locked in a legal stalemate with the Stationers’ Guild over the official rights to publish the music. These dances then, with well-known tunes taken from the last few decades of masquing music, were essentially aristocratic party music. This meant that the music was popular across the social spectrum, ensuring Playford’s success.

The darker, political side to this story is that the tunes were almost completely divorced from their lyrics. It was important for Playford because while he gave shortened, even abbreviated titles for the works, he knew that many of the lyrics would have been objectionable to the new Parliamentary government. When other publishers tried to publish the texts alone, they were either officially censored or, if they were published without permission, the books were often burned at public execution sites. But Playford knew that his “knowing audience” as he named them in many of his prefaces, would know the relevant lyrics. They would enjoy singing the tunes with the most recent scandalous stories made available by ballad mongers of his time, and the censor would be none the wiser!

Popular and politically sensitive as the tunes may have been in Playford’s time, the legacy of this publication is even greater. The recording and publishing of the dances started a tradition of contradancing in England and throughout northern Europe that continues today, understood to the be the ancestor of modern forms of square-dancing. Even more significant, however, is that these publications helped to save tunes for posterity that otherwise would have been lost to time.

To find out more about the anthologies of Playford, Ravenscroft, and many others from the period 1400-1700, please see the recent finding aid, Anthologies of Musical Works from 15th-17th Centuries in the Library of Congress Music Division, created by Susan Clermont that brings these Library of Congress treasures to light.



Source Cited

“publish the music” Whitlock, Keith. “John Playford’s The English Dancing Master 1650/51 as Cultural Politics,” Folk Music Journal 7/5 (1999): 548-578. 


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