Just like England's playwrights and poets, its scholars and teachers, England's musical composers took traditions and styles from Italy and the continent and created bodies of work that are uniquely British.
The 1500s were times of change, as were the 1400s before them. Marco Polo had travelled to China and published the account of his travels. Magellan had circumnavigated the Earth, proving that the Earth was round. The Silk Road linked The Mediterranean with Central and Far East Asia.
Secular Instrumental music and songs from the 1500s were popular going back to the Spanish and Italian Renaissances, with a similar, if also different and more style to that of the music of the Middle Ages. In its combines the complex polyphony (multiple voices) of the Middle Ages with the artistic complexities of the Baroque and later classical music.
Music was a form of popular entertainment during the Renaissance. Both sacred and secular music was heard throughout society. In cathedrals, Lain masses and motets were sung by choirs of four or five voices accompanied by organ. Songs were sung by choirs during Christmas time. Popular songs were played in a variety of ways, sometimes by a group of four or five people accapalla, sometimes with musical accompaniament.
The popular music instruments of the day included the lute, brought from France and Italy. The lute came from Spain, then ruled by the Moors. The lute as a stringed instrument was based on the Oud, a stringed instrument dating to the 6th century with its roots in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt (with a similar stringed instrument played in Turkey). The Oud itself is based on the Barbat, an instrument created by Ancient Iranian peoples in the 1st century BC, later adopted by the Persians. The word itself is an arabic word derived from a Persian word meaning string, stringed instrument, or lute.
The viol and bass viol were cello like instruments, with slightly different bodies from modern cellos and with frets on the neck. They were played in musical ensembles, sometimes with vocialists. The organ was also popular, played in many cathedrals.
William Byrd is considered England’s greatest composer from this time. Byrd was of a generation just before Shakespeare’s, having been born in the late 1530s, early 1540s. He became a “Gentleman” of the Chapel Royal, with the designation of organist. The Chapel Royal was a group of clergy and singers who served at the behest of the Queen. It was an institution with a long tradition, that travelled with the royal family.
William Byrd wrote masses and motets. He published with his mentor Thomas Tallis, another prolific Elizabethan omposer, a book of 34 motets in 1575. He also wrote songbooks, consort music, and keyboard music. His songs were included in a number of popular songbooks of the time, sometimes called Partbooks. Two songbooks of his were published in 1588 and 1589. He served the Queen from 1572 until his semi-retirement from the Chapel Royal in 1594.
Byrd was known for creating his own style by combining elements from Continental polyphony, Italian music, and local English composers to create a music that was uniquely English and uniquely his own.
Music in the 1500s was played by professional musicians and by common people as a casual pastime and entertainment. Music books were written so that even non-musicians could read them. William Shakespeare included songs in some of his plays, with many other references to popular lyrics of the time that his audience would be very familiar with.
Even after his retirement, he continued writing and publishing music, well into the 1600s. He always wrote artistic music, compared to music solely for light entertainment or for the festive masques at Court. But the Court of Elizabeth 1 and King James 1 were both great patrons of the arts. Queen Elizabeth herself played the keyboard. James 1 wrote poetry. And of course, they both were patrons to the theatrical troupe to which William Shakespeare belonged.
Other great English composers include John Johnson (1550-1594) and John Dowland (1563-1626). John Johnson also was a Court musician and created more music than any other English composer except for only William Byrd. Johnson is credited as the father of the "olden Age" of English lute music.
Johnson would oftentimes write French dances, such as the Galliard and the Paven, and yet his composisitions sound unmistakenly British, with local British flavour and texture.