A Song sung before the King

A Song sung before the King, by N. Staggins (image© CUL)

A Song sung before the King, by N. Staggins
(image© CUL)

Dr. Nicholas Staggins (d. 1700) became Professor of Music at Cambridge University in 1684. He was the first in a continuing line of eminent musicians, composers and musicologists to hold this very prestigious position.

Since the Music Department is very interested in all things related to Cambridge (and music) we were very pleased indeed when we were able to acquire: “A Song sung before the King at Kensington on the 4th. of Novemb. being his Majesties Birth day; The words by Mr. Shadwell and set to Musick by Dr. Nicholas Staggins.”

Thomas Shadwell (c. 1642–1692), who studied at Cambridge, is of course a very well known name. He was a very productive playwright and poet producing numerous works that have become of significant research interest. Staggins on the other hand seems to have been largely forgotten. During his lifetime however he was very much part of the musical establishment, especially after his appointment as Master of the King’s Musick in 1674. It may seem strange to us now but in none of his prominent posts was there an emphasis on composing music and we actually know very little about his work. Based on what is known – music for a court masque, a suite, some fragments of odes and a few songs – it has been suggested that his music was not exactly of the highest standard and I’m sorry to say that our song has nothing much to offer that could contradict this assumption.

That being said, A Song sung before the King is a very interesting musical document. Although it came to us undated and apparantly unrecorded, the text matches the seventh verse of Thomas Shadwell’s 1692 Ode on the King’s Birth-day so it seems we have found ourselves an additional musical fragment of the 1692 ode. The text can be found on EEBO (Early English Books Online, access by subscription). It was printed in 1692 for Francis Saunders, at the Blew Anchor in the Lower Walk of the New Exchange. The king in question is William III and in the ode there is a lot of praise for his achievements, as well as some very damning remarks towards his enemies (an allusion perhaps to one of the earlier Jacobean plots?), before ending with praise and best wishes for Mary and the Royal Pair.

For anyone wanting to find out more about Staggins as a composer there is still a lot of work to do. We don’t know for example where the song we currently hold was published and whether this source might have contained other musical fragments. As far as the music department is concerned, we are very pleased indeed to have been able to add such an interesting item to our collections. The title was acquired through the generosity of a member of the Friends of the University Library and we would of course like to thank our donor.


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