Music blog

15 August 2016

Music printing in England, 1650-1700, and The British Library

The purpose of this blog post is two-fold: to give a brief overview of music printing in England during the second half of the seventeenth century and to demonstrate the comprehensiveness of the British Library’s holdings of printed music from this period, including pointing out some of its gaps. It is based on the ‘Short-Title Catalogue of Extant English Music Publications, 1650–1700’, given as Appendix A in Stephanie Carter’s 2010 PhD thesis, ‘Music Publishing and Compositional Activity in England, 1650–1700’ (see below for detailed references), complemented by RISM A/I (online), B/I, B/VI, and the British Library’s online catalogue. Carter points out that her catalogue does not include ‘psalm books, broadsides, music magazines, and other music books not primarily containing music notation’ (Ibid., 227). Furthermore, I do not count items marked as separate issues that appeared in the same year, but did not constitute a new edition (e.g. with added music).

Music printing in England between 1650 and 1700 was characterised by a relatively steady increase in the number of publications appearing per year, which has been understood to be largely due to the pioneering activities of John Playford (Krummel, English Music Printing, 115; also Krummel, ‘Music Publishing’, 92). Within the scope of Carter’s catalogue, no new printed music volumes appeared in 1650 (though John Playford did reprint the engraved plates he had acquired of William Child’s psalms, see Carter, ‘Music Publishing’, 87) and only a single publication each is extant from the years 1654, 1661, 1664. At the end of the century, a total of 12 appeared in 1699, and 13 in 1700.

In Britain, very little music was printed outside of London: a mere handful of publications were printed elsewhere, including in Oxford and a very small number in Aberdeen (the latter of which are not included in the following discussion, which focuses on England). Music printing in the seventeenth century generally catered for a tiny market, which was apparently made up primarily of amateurs: over 70% of the 159 different titles Carter examined seem to have been conceived for this market (‘Music Publishing’, 86). Many of these include brief introductions or are primarily tutors explaining musical rudiments and how to play a specific instrument. The actual pieces contained are often popular tunes or arrangements of them for the instrument in question (Ibid., 96). As an example, the tune of ‘Old Simon the King’ was first printed (to my knowledge) as the last tune in the supplement to the sixth edition of The Dancing Master (1679), and subsequently reprinted in every edition until this particular series ended with the eighteenth edition around 1728, thereby well outliving not only its founder John Playford (1623–1686/7), but also his son Henry (1657–1709). ‘Old Simon’ also appeared in The Genteel Companion (1683), a recorder tutor, in Apollo’s Banquet, a violin tutor (not in the first edition, 1678, but definitely by the fifth edition, 1687), in The Division-Violin (1684), where it was reprinted at least until the sixth edition (1705), and in a keyboard arrangement in The Second Part of Musick’s Hand-maid (1689) (see Illustrations 1–4).

1 Old Simon - Dancing Master
Illustration 1: A Supplement to the Dancing-Master, of new Dances, never Printed before (London, 1679), p. 22, amended by hand to ‘182’

2a Old Simon - Genteel Companion 1
2b Old Simon - Genteel Companion 2
Illustration 2: The Genteel Companion (London, 1683), pp. 38–9.

3a Old Simon - Division Violin 1
3b Old Simon - Division Violin 2
Illustration 3: The Division-Violin (London, 1684), no. 4

4 Old Simon - Musick's Hand-maid
Illustration 4: The Second Part of Musick’s Hand-maid (London, 1689), signature mark F3

There seems to have been considerable demand for beginner manuals, some of which were clearly intended to teach someone from scratch, while others would have been merely sufficient to complement actual music tuition. The success of Playford’s relatively detailed An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, first published in 1654 and in eighteen further editions until 1730, suggests that self-instruction was fairly common, which would often have been for economic reasons as paying a personal instrumental or singing teacher was probably beyond many amateurs’ means (Carter, ‘Music Publishing’, 99). Playford’s Introduction was clearly designed to encourage musical literacy, thereby gradually broadening the market for printed music (Ibid., 42; see also Herissone, ‘Music Theory’, 8-9).

Another large proportion of printed music consisted of multi-composer anthologies catering for musically more literate amateur performers. Single-composer publications were significantly less common in this period, and were often printed ‘for the author’, that is, self-published by the composer, who would have had to invest a considerable sum in order to have his music printed (Herissone, ‘Playford, Purcell, and the Functions of Music Publishing’, 256, 261). Carter has argued that the overall dominance of anthologies over single-composer collections (or publications of single works such as operas) ‘highlights a reliance upon the figure of the editor and compiler’ rather than the composer (‘Music Publishing’, 86), who often had little or no involvement in the printing process, especially towards the end of the century (Ibid., 79-80). Moreover, composers were rarely named in instrumental anthologies, though attributions were more common in vocal ones (Ibid., 133-6).

Most of Playford’s publications were printed using single-impression movable type, and although engraved music appeared to some extent throughout the seventeenth century (Krummel, English Music Printing, 143-53; also Poole, ‘Music Printing’, 43), the last two decades saw a marked rise in the use of engraving. This was pioneered by Thomas Cross and later John Walsh, the former of whom gained fame and, for some, notoriety, for engraving and selling single-sheet songs at a very low price (Carter, ‘Music Publishing’, 72-3; see also Krummel, ‘Music Publishing’, 101). Unlike printing from movable type, which tended to make more virtuosic music look unattractive and did not allow for the printing of chords, engraving allowed for notationally complex music such as that for keyboard instruments to be printed (Poole, ‘Music Printing’, 40; also Krummel, English Music Printing, 144-5). Comparing the type-set 'Old Simon the King' in Illustration 1 above with the engraved versions shown in Illustrations 2-4 demonstrates the different appearance that results in the use of the two different printing techniques. Ironically, John Playford’s very first music publication, Child’s The First Set of Psalmes (1650), was a reprint using engraved plates previously used for an edition in 1639 (Munstedt, ‘John Playford’, 137).

The British Library holds exemplars of a large majority of publications that appeared in England between 1650 and 1700: out of a total of 259 publications on Carter’s list (counting every edition or ‘book’ separately, except different issues of the same edition or book), the Library has copies of 211 (about 81%). Furthermore, duplicates exist of forty-six publications (many are from the Royal Music Library), while there are three exemplars each of a further ten, and there are four copies of three of the publications (I will discuss the rather complex situation of Nicola Matteis’s Ayrs for the Violin in its various parts and impressions in another blog post). The fact that there are four exemplars (and a large number in other libraries worldwide) of Purcell’s ‘failed’ publication The Vocal and Instrumental Musick of the Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian (see Herissone, Playford, Purcell, and the Functions of Music Publishing’, 277–82) probably has more to do with Purcell’s posthumous fame and later collection patterns favouring large single works over multi-composer anthologies than indicating the popularity of the publication in Purcell’s own day.

Nevertheless, there are a few noticeable gaps in the British Library’s holdings: for example, while there is a copy each of the 1675, 1678 and 1682 editions of Thomas Greeting’s flageolet tutor The Pleasant Companion (see Carter, ‘Music Publishing’, 100) there are none from the 1672, 1673, 1676, 1680, 1681 (entitled The Most Pleasant Companion) and 1683 editions. According to RISM A/I (online), two of the British Library’s copies (of the 1678 and 1682 editions) are unica, as is the first edition (1672), held at Cambridge University Library. However, the information seems to be far from complete, as RISM makes no mention of the 1675, 1676, 1681 and 1683 editions, though it lists an additional 1688 edition, not mentioned as such by Carter. The Library also does not have the 1655 Introduction to the Skill of Musick, but there are copies of every other edition printed in the seventeenth century.

A majority of ‘missing’ publications are, however, from the last decade of the century, which may simply reflect the fact that almost as much music was published in England in the fourteen years following John Playford’s death in the winter of 1686/7 than in the 37 preceding years. Among those publications with no copies at the British Library are several instrumental tutors, such as Nolens Volens (1695, for violin), the first and second books of The Harpsichord Master (1697 and 1700, respectively), and the first and third books of the Self-Instructor on the Violin (1695 and 1700, respectively; there is a copy of the second book).

Another unfortunate gap is John Playford’s third music publication, A Musicall Banquet of 1651, which he seems to have designed to test the market for subsequent publications, since he later expanded its sections into four successful series: An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, Musick’s Recreation (a viol tutor), Court-Ayres (an anthology of instrumental music) and Catch that Catch can (Carter, ‘Music Publishing’, 87). According to RISM B/I, the only complete copy is at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, with an incomplete one at the Huntington Library in California. The British Library does, however, own a copy of The English Dancing Master (the first edition of the series later entitled The Dancing Master), Playford’s relatively scarce second music publication and the first that was not a reprint.

Stephan Schönlau (University of Manchester)

PhD placement student



Carter, Stephanie, ‘Music Publishing and Compositional Activity in England, 1650-1700’ (Doctoral dissertation, University of Manchester, 2010).

Herissone, Rebecca, Music Theory in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: University Press, 2000).

Herissone, Rebecca, ‘Playford, Purcell, and the Functions of Music Publishing in Restoration England’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 63 (2010), 243-90.

Krummel, D. W., English Music Printing, 1553-1700 (London: Bibliographical Society, 1975).

Krummel, D. W., ‘Music Publishing’, in D. W. Krummel & Stanley Sadie, eds., Music Printing and Publishing (London: Macmillan Press, 1990), 79-132.

Munsteadt, Peter Alan, ‘John Playford, Music Publisher: A Bibliographical Catalogue’ (Doctoral dissertation, University of Kentucky, 1983).

Poole, H. Edmund, ‘Music Printing’, in D. W. Krummel & Stanley Sadie, eds., Music Printing and Publishing (London: Macmillan Press, 1990), 3-78.

Woolley, Andrew, ‘English Keyboard Sources and their Contexts, c.1660-1720’ (Doctoral dissertation, University of Leeds, 2008).