Music blog

05 November 2016

Remember, remember, the fifth of November

"Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot!"

Many of us will see and hear ‘Bonfire Night’ or ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ celebrations on 5th November, even if we don’t attend them ourselves. Of course, these celebrations, commemorating the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, have a history dating back to the very first anniversary of the conspiracy.

The failure of the Gunpowder Plot was immediately seized upon by printers in Jacobean England, who were quick to cash in on the publishing opportunities arising from the plot’s failure. A quick glance through the Stationers’ Company register shows some of the virulently anti-Catholic publications going to print in the months after the plot’s discovery, among them Great Brytayns great Delyuerance from the great danger of popishe powder poysoned by the hand of God and The Vnmaskinge of Murder. Or. An extemporrall Declaracon of the Cacolyke complotted treason Lately Discouered.

Somewhat remarkably, this polemic is also found in some of the music publications in the British Library’s collections. The composer Richard Alison, for example, appended three plot-commemorating anthems to the end of his 1606 publication, An Howres Recreation in Muiscke. The title-page of this collection describes them as "a prayer for the long preseruation of the King and his posteritie, and a thankesgiuing for the deliuerance of the whole estate from the late conspiracie".

Alison Title Page Richard Alison, A Howre’s Recreation in Musicke (London: John Windet, 1606). British Library Music Collections K.3.m.1

Yet behind the relatively gentile wording of this frontispiece is a vitriolic condemnation of the plot, sweetly arranged for five-part consort performance in the home. Alison’s "thanksgiving for the deliverance" is rounded off by this chorus, which describes the "bloody bloody treasons" as the direct work of the devil himself:

Alison ChorusAlison, Howres Recreation in Musicke, Cantus Secundus f.15r

Alison was not alone in his musical celebration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, and the printing of commemorative music for this occasion seems to have persevered for some time. John Amner, in his Sacred Hymnes (1615), observed the occasion with this short thanksgiving ‘Alleluia’, which is wholly typical of the composer’s elaborate and energetic style:

Amner Title Page 

Amner 'I will sing unto the Lord John Amner, Sacred Hymnes (London: Edward Allde, 1615). British Library Music Collections K.3.h.2. 

Cantus Primus title-page (above) and Cantus Secundus f.11r (below)

"I Will singe vnto the Lord" would appear to be a joyous celebration of James I’s triumph over the traitorous plot, the discovery of which demonstrated God’s protection of the anointed king. However, Amner’s choice of text for this is peculiar, to say the least. "I will sing unto the Lord", also known as the "Song of Moses" is the celebratory canticle of the Hebrews after they successfully crossed the Red Sea in their escape from Egypt. The Book of Exodus tells us that this escape was achieved by divine intervention, when God drowned the pursuing Pharaoh, with all his chariots; it is rather curious, therefore, that Amner should celebrate James I’s narrow escape with a story of regicide.

Amner doesn’t stop there. At the bottom of every page in this collection, there is a one line Latin paraphrase of the text which summarises the content of each motet. Yet, for this piece, Amner selects a completely different verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans, translated in the King James Version as "If God be for us, who can be against us?":

Amner 'Si deus nobiscum' original John Amner, Sacred Hymnes. Cantus Secudus, f.11r.

Amner is clearly saying that God is on one side in the conflict between James’s Calvinist government and Catholic dissenters. Given the anti-Catholic sentiments in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, his ambiguity over which side he means is, at the very least, brave.

James Ritzema

Collaborative PhD student, Royal Holloway, University of London, and British Library