From the stacks: Locke’s “Melothesia”

Matthew Locke

Matthew Locke

Whilst we were preparing our tribute to Chris Hogwood last month, I looked out our copy of Matthew Locke’s Melothesia [MR340.c.65.1] as Chris had prepared a modern edition for OUP, published in 1987 [M340.a.95.532.5], and was immediately captivated. So I thought it would be a pleasant diversion to look in a little more depth at this extraordinary publication for this particular episode of “From the stacks”.

Matthew Locke (1621 – 1677) was one of the most important English composers in the generation before Purcell. He is probably best-remembered for his dramatic music (such as his contribution to Shadwell‘s adaptation of The Tempest) and his consort music, but he also wrote anthems, motets, secular songs and works for keyboard. At the heart of Royal music-making, in 1660 he was appointed “Composer in the Private Music” to Charles II, as well as composer for the King’s “four and twenty fiddlers” (the copy-cat band of Louis XIII’s vingt-quatre violons du Roi) for which he was paid a salary of £40 a year, and from 1662, organist at Queen Catherine of Braganza’s (Catholic) chapel . Purcell paid tribute to Locke in his elegy ‘What hope for us remains now he is gone?’, published in the second book of John Playford’s Choice Ayres, Songs and Dialogues (1679).

Matthew Locke. Melothesia, 1673.

Matthew Locke. Melothesia, 1673.
© Cambridge University Library

Locke, something of a prickly character, was often outspoken in defence of English music and his own works, a view echoed by Burney, in his General history of music [MR475.b.75.1-4] which has this rather damning summary of Locke’s music in the passage discussing his contribution to The Tempest: “…rather rough and nervous, exactly corresponding with the idea which is generated of his private character… and the sight of his picture in the Music School at Oxford” (v.4, p.8). Oh dear, and yet on the next page we have “Lock [sic] had genius and abilities in harmony…” which at least, grudgingly, restores the balance somewhat. Roger North, however, sums up Locke as “the most considerable Master of Musick after Jenkins fell off…a good composer in the old and the new way…and then gave way to the divine Purcell” Memoirs of Musick, p.95 et seq. [MR475.c.80.3].

Examples of how to apply some of the figures bass rules.© Cambridge University Library

Examples of how to apply some of the figured bass rules.
© Cambridge University Library

But what of Melothesia itself? It has earned its place in history because it contains the first known tutorial on how to realise a figured bass. Dedicated to the colourful author and pamphleteer Roger L’Estrange (himself an accomplished viol-player), it was published by John Carr in 1673. The volume is oblong quarto and extends to some 90 pages. Incidentally, the title literally means “the setting of melody”.

Hogwood, in his admirable and informative introduction to the 1987 OUP edition suggests that: “Melothesia … was probably provoked by the success of Playford’s collection [Parthenia], Locke never being one to eschew competition”.

The Almain from the Suite in G minor by Locke (no. 8 in the collection). © Cambridge University Library

The Almain from the Suite in G minor by Locke (no. 8 in the collection).
© Cambridge University Library

The work begins with the tutorial on figured bass, Locke’s instructions making it clear that they are suitable for “any instrument capable of performing a Duplicity of Parts” (p.4). He goes on to set out ten General Rules, beginning “After having perfectly observed the Tone or Key you are to Play on, (which is ever known by | the last Note of the Bass) with what notes are properly Flat and Sharp therein…” and explaining a cadence “… a Fall or Binding, wherein, after the taking of a Discord or Disccords, there is a meeting | or Closure of Concords…” Having worked throught the tutorial, he concludes that “By these Directions, the Ingenious, Practical Student…may in a short time | attain his desired end of accompanying either Voyces or Instruments”. Finally, the ever-irascible Locke cannot resist a dig at the new “Air-Mongers” [composers of popular songs], berating them for their lax approach, which he dismisses as “…a down-right Cheat…”

As to the music itself, Locke has arranged the pieces to form a series of fourteen suites (for example: prelude, almain, corant, saraband, jig). The first four are by Locke himself, the remaining ten by a number of composers now sadly lost in the mists of time such as William Gregory, William Thatcher and Christopher Preston. All we know is that they were probably colleagues of Locke’s from the King’s Private Music. Finally there are seven pieces by Locke specifically for the organ, the last of which is for double organ.

In sum: a delightful treasure, well worth taking time to investigate.

The final piece in the collection, no.68 For a Double Organ, by Locke.

The final piece in the collection, no.68 For a Double Organ, by Locke.
© Cambridge University Library







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