Pepys and Music – a general overview

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BBC Radio 4, presented by Lucie Skeaping

To Pepys, music wasn’t just a pleasant pastime; it was also an art of great significance – something that could change lives and affect everyone who heard it. He was a keen amateur, playing various instruments and studying singing – he even designed a room in his home specially for music-making. He attended the services at the Chapel Royal; he collected a vast library of scores, frequented the theatre and concerts and even commented with affection on the ringing of the church bells that filled the air in London’s bustling streets where he lived and worked. And because of his social standing, he was able to mix with some of the finest composers of the day. In his diary he records his experiences as a listener, a singer, a player, a frustrated composer and a would-be student of musical theory. Almost every page bears witness to his genuine love of music; and particularly valuable to musicians exploring music in England in this period are his references to specific songs: he mentions eleven of them by name, that he heard performed, particularly enjoyed, or even sung himself with his friends. 

12 April 1667:and then by water down to Redriffe, meaning to meet my wife, who is gone with MercerBarker, and the boy (it being most sweet weather) to walk, and I did meet with them, and walked back, and then by the time we got home it was dark, and we staid singing in the garden till supper was ready, and there with great pleasure. But I tried my girles Mercer and Barker singly one after another, a single song, “At dead low ebb,” etc. [a setting by Henry Lawes of words by an anonymous author; published in John Playford’s Select Ayres and Dialogues 1653], and I do clearly find that as to manner of singing the latter do much the better, the other thinking herself as I do myself above taking pains for a manner of singing, contenting ourselves with the judgment and goodness of eare. 

Samuel’s father John Pepys ran a tailoring business; the family wasn’t wealthy, but they owned a virginal and several other instruments; John Pepys played the bass viol, and music and singing was an essential part of family life. The Civil War and the Interregnum had thrown the musical scene in England pretty much into disarray: the Chapel Royal had been disbanded, the playhouses shut, church organs destroyed, and many of England’s foremost musicians had joined the army or tried to earn money by some other means. And yet, even during these turbulent times, the art of music was far from dead – it had simply moved underground and away from the troubles, flourishing in private houses and informal gatherings: as the writer Roger North would later put it: ‘Many [musicians] preferred to stay at home and fiddle than go abroad [out of doors] and be knock’d on the head’. Indeed, what Pepys’s diary makes very clear is just how much domestic music-making there was among the sort of social circles in which he mixed.

In the spring of 1660, Pepys accompanied his cousin Edward Montagu on board the ship the Naseby as they sailed to the Hague to bring Charles Stuart back to England. Ever the keen musician, Pepys had packed in his luggage some instruments and music books for the long voyage.

5 June 1660: In the evening in my cabin a great while getting the song without book, “Help, help Divinity, &c.” [Help, help, O help Divinity: a setting by Henry Lawes of a poem by Henry Hughs. Printed by John Playford’s ‘The Second Book of Ayres and Dialogues’ 1655]. After supper my Lord called for the lieutenant’s cittern [or sometimes Gittern, a flat-backed instrument with wire strings plucked with a quill plectrum. Considered of rather lower status than the lute, it enjoyed great popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries] and with two candlesticks with money in them for symballs, we made barber’s music, with which my Lord was well pleased.

Almost from the very moment that Charles II stepped onto English soil, and processed into the City of London to the delight of the crowds that lined the streets, there was a new spirit in the air. With some speed the king set about rebuilding the royal musical establishments, opening the theatres and expanding the old palace band.

Matthew Locke, a member of The King’s Musick, composer of royal anthems (and, incidentally, one of the teachers of the young Henry Purcell) is just one of a host of composers Pepys mentions in his diary as friends, acquaintances, or people he even made music with himself; others include Richard Dering, the Queen’s organist; Christopher Gibbons, organist at the Chapel Royal; the madrigalist Thomas Morley; Thomas Ravenscroft, composer of hymns and popular songs; and John Bannister, Director of the King’s Violin Band, to name but a few.

1 September 1662:and I to my Lord Sandwich’s, who is gone to wait upon the King and Queen today. And so Mr. Paget being there, Will Howe and I and he played over some things of Locke’s that we used to play at sea, that pleased us three well, it being the first music I have heard a great while, so much has my business of late taken me off from all my former delights.

Matthew Locke had effectively become England’s leading composer, and he was closely associated with the King’s newly-formed court orchestra, ‘The Twenty-four Violins’ – an unashamed imitation of Louis XIV’s famous ‘Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi’. This orchestra was a great innovation – although it didn’t always impress Pepys:

1 October 1667: …and so took coach alone, it now being almost night, to White Hall, and there in the Boarded- gallery did hear the musick with which the King is presented this night by Monsieur Grebus, the master of his musick [Louis Grabu (fl. 1665-1690), Catalan-born, French-trained composer and violinist, came to England at the time of the Restoration; appointed composer of Private Music for Charles II in 1665, then Master of the King’s Musick], both instrumentall — I think twenty-four violins — and vocall; an English song upon Peace. But, God forgive me! I never was so little pleased with a concert of musick in my life. The manner of setting of words and repeating them out of order, and that with a number of voices, makes me sick, the whole design of vocall musick being lost by it. Here was a great press of people; but I did not see many pleased with it, only the instrumental musick he had brought by practice to play very just. So thence late in the dark round by the wall home by coach, and there to sing and sup with my wife, and look upon our pretty girle, and so to bed.

When it came to music, England hadn’t yet really absorbed all the lessons of Italy and Europe at that time. In fact the restored Charles II, having spent eleven years in exile wandering the courts of Europe, was better informed about new continental developments than many of the musicians left behind in England. Charles had also picked up a great taste for the ‘French style’; he couldn’t abide the ‘old English music’ – the complex fantasies and counterpoint of his father’s time – insisting only on tunes that he could ‘tap his foot to’. So, as well performing in the chapel, Charles’s new string orchestra now also acted for ballets, court masquerades and plays:

20 November 1660: I found my Lord in bed late, he having been with the KingQueene, and Princesse, at the Cockpit [the private theatre in Whitehall Palace] all night, where General Monke treated them; and after supper, a play [the first performance of Ben Jonson’s The Silent Woman], where the King did put a great affront upon Singleton’s Musique [an early reference to members of the Twenty-four Violins; John Singleton, a violinist at court from 1660 evidently led a smaller group of violinists brought in to increase numbers], he bidding them stop and bade the French Musique play, which, my Lord says do much outdo all ours.

 While at the French court, Charles had taken guitar lessons from Francesco Corbetta [c.1615-1681: Italian guitar virtuoso, teacher and composer who, during the last twenty years of his life, divided his time between London and Paris] and had invited him to accompany him back to England where the instrument was soon much in vogue, replacing the old Elizabethan lute. Pepys was evidently not impressed by it, at first anyway:

5 August 1667: After done with the Duke of York, and coming out through his dressing-room, I there spied Signor Francisco tuning his gittar, and Monsieur de Puy with him, who did make him play to me, which he did most admirably — so well as I was mightily troubled that all that pains should have been taken upon so bad an instrument. 

The King’s enthusiasm for continental style could even be found in that most conservative of musical establishments the Chapel Royal, which wasn’t so much a building but a group of singers – Gentlemen and boy choristers who set up wherever the king based himself. Wind players were employed in the chapel, often to augment the singers, particularly in the early 1660s before a new generation of boys was fully trained. However, in December 1662 John Evelyn noted that ‘instead of antient grave and solemn wind musique accompanying the organ, was introduced a Consort of 24 Violins after the French fantastical light way, better suiting a tavern or playhouse than a church’.

Pepys heard the Chapel Royal on many occasions and also met one of its young stars, Pelham Humfrey (1647-1674). Still in his early teens, Humfrey was already becoming an excellent composer; several of his anthems were performed by the choir and admired by Pepys who was present on more than one occasion. After his voice broke Humfrey was sent off to study in France – and according to Pepys, he returned a bit too big for his boots:

15 November 1667: Thence I away home, calling at my mercer’s and tailor’s, and there find, as I expected, Mr. Caesar and little Pelham Humphreys, lately returned from France, and is an absolute Monsieur, as full of form, and confidence, and vanity, and disparages everything, and everybody’s skill but his own. The truth is, every body says he is very able, but to hear how he laughs at all the King’s musick here, as Blagrave and others, that they cannot keep time nor tune, nor understand anything; and that Grebus, the Frenchman, the King’s master of the musick, how he understands nothing, nor can play on any instrument, and so cannot compose: and that he will give him a lift out of his place; and that he and the King are mighty great! and that he hath already spoke to the King of Grebus would make a man piss. 

Humfrey’s career advanced rapidly; he went on to become the first director of the King’s Violin band, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal and London’s leading composer of church music producing some eighteen anthems, all of them based on the King’s beloved French style with many featuring dance-like rhythms.


But Humphrey – and indeed Grabu – were by no means the only London-based composers of the time whose music showed international influences. Pepys frequently refers in his diary to Nicholas Lanier, the first ever Master of the King’s Musick. Lanier had long been a trusted courtier and connoisseur in service to both Charles I and Charles II. Also a scenographer and painter, in 1625 he made a series of visits to Italy to acquire paintings for the royal household. He had spent time in France and in the Low Countries, and his music – in particular, his often rather Italianate songs – would have been of special interest to Pepys who was constantly on the lookout for tips as to how to improve his own song-writing efforts.   No doubt Lanier’s travel experiences, his broad knowledge of the arts and any gossip he had, would have made him an irresistible dinner guest. Shortly before Lanier’s death, Pepys tells of an evening when he played host to Lanier and a mutual friend, a certain Mr Coleman.

30 October 1665: Up, and to my office about business. At noon to dinner, and after some discourse of musique, he and I to the office awhile, and he to get Mr. Coleman, if he can, against night. By and by I back again home, and there find him returned with Mr. Coleman (his wife being ill) and Mr. Laneare, with whom with their Lute we had excellent company and good singing till midnight, and a good supper I did give them, but Coleman’s voice is quite spoiled, and when he begins to be drunk he is excellent company, but afterward troublesome and impertinent. Laneare sings in a melancholy method very well, and a sober man he seems to be. They being gone, we to bed.

Pepys also refers in passing to some of the great continental masters, such as the celebrated church musician from Rome, Giacomo Carissimi. He tells how, returning home from a church service, he encountered his friends Mr. Hill and Andrews, and ‘one slovenly and ugly fellow, Seignor Pedro, who sings Italian songs to the theorbo [a plucked string instrument of the lute family, with an extended neck] most neatly. He describes how they ‘spent the whole evening in singing the best piece of musique counted of all hands in the world, made by Seignor Carissimi, the famous master in Rome. Fine it was indeed, and too fine for me to judge of’.

The great achievements generally ascribed to Carissimi are the further development of the recitative, introduced by Monteverdi, which was highly important to the history of dramatic music and indeed to opera. But in England it was still early days for all that; and in the theatre it was the incidental music – the songs and dances – that were so much part of the experience:

8 May 1663: Thence to my brother’s, and there took up my wife and Ashwell to the Theatre Royall, being the second day of its being opened. The house is made with extraordinary good contrivance, and yet hath some faults, as the narrowness of the passages in and out of the Pitt, and the distance from the stage to the boxes, which I am confident cannot hear; but for all other things it is well, only, above all, the musique being below [that is, the new innovation of an orchestra pit in front of the stage rather than the musicians being placed in the gallery], and most of it sounding under the very stage, there is no hearing of the bases at all, nor very well of the trebles, which sure must be mended. 

Another time, Pepys reports on a musical adaptation of Macbeth by Davenant given at the theatre at Lincolns Inn Fields, and found ‘the variety of dancing and music the best I ever saw’. He also relates a rather touching episode:

 27 February 1667/68: All the morning at the office, and at noon home to dinner, and thence with my wife and Deb. to the King’s House, to see “The Virgin Martyr,” [1662, a Jacobean tragedy by Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger] the first time it hath been acted a great while: and it is mighty pleasant; not that the play is worth much, but it is finely acted by Becke Marshall. But that which did please me beyond any thing in, the whole world was the wind-musique when the angel comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home, and at home, I was able to think of any thing, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any musick hath that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me: and makes me resolve to practice wind-musique, and to make my wife do the like.

On another visit to the Theatre Royal, Pepys mentions being accompanied by Mary Ashwell, servant and companion to his wife Elizabeth, whom he had employed mainly because ‘she do play pretty well upon the harpsicon’

Pepys arranged for his wife to learn the flageolet – a simple four-to-six-hole wooden pipe. In fact, although the diary is packed with references to musical instruments – Pepys played the lute, the viol, violin, recorder and the spinet, to varying degrees of proficiency – it is the humble flageolet that gets the most mentions:

16 January 1659/60: Thence we went to the Green Dragon, on Lambeth Hill, both the Mr. Pinkney’s,SmithHarrisonMorrice, that sang the bass, Sheply and I, and there we sang of all sorts of things, and I ventured with good success upon things at first sight, and after that I played on my flageolet, and staid there till nine o’clock, very merry and drawn on with one song after another till it came to be so late.

Sometimes, in warmer weather, these musical parties continued on ‘the leads’ – that is, the flat balustraded roof of Pepys’s house:

25 April 1666: So home, and with my wife and Mercer spent our evening upon our new leads by our bedchamber singing, while Mrs. Mary Batelier looked out of the window to us…

Pepys found great delight in singing; in quite a modern way he recognised its health-giving properties, both mental and physical, and recommended that singing – and indeed music in general – be taught in schools as part of ‘mathematick knowledge’. His was a natural gift rather than anything very scholarly. He seems to have had what we would now call a bass-baritone voice, and enjoyed not only the communal singing of catches – or as he called them, ‘fooleries’ – but also some of the pretty, Italianate airs by leading writers of the day such as Henry Lawes, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal both before and after the Restoration. Lawes’ style is distinctive for its declamatory character; he was very influenced by the Italian view – indeed that of the early opera composers – that the ancient Greek dramas, rather than being spoken, had been sung all through, in recitative style.

When it came to Pepys’s own attempts at song-writing, Lawes’ songs proved a particular inspiration, the recitative style being something Pepys tried to emulate in his own song ‘Beauty Retire’. It’s a setting of words from what was evidently one of his favourite plays, William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes. Having wrestled with it for months, Pepys seems to have been truly delighted with his song – indeed so proud of it that, in his famous portrait by John Hales, he is painted holding the manuscript.

Pepys clearly had broad musical tastes – you only have to see his magnificent music library in Cambridge for proof of this. There are numerous printed collections of 16th and 17th century vocal and instrumental music, some manuscripts going back to the 15th century, volumes on music theory and several collections of songs arranged for bass voice and simple accompaniment, no doubt for his own private use. He also owned a collection of more than seventeen-hundred broadside ballads. These were the popular songs of the day – simple ditties, printed on one side of a sheet of paper (the ‘broadside’) and sold in the streets by rough-singing pedlars. Their rhyming stanzas could be political, comical, moralising, nostalgic, or just plain lewd. Some broadside ballads have survived today because they became nursery rhymes cleaned-up by the Victorians – ‘Lavenders Blue, lavenders green’, for example, was a particularly bawdy ballad in Pepys time. Others have been preserved in the folksong or English National song repertoire, such as the song that begins: ‘In Scarlet Town where I was born’:

2 January 1665/66: ….to my Lord Bruncker’s, and there find Sir J. Minnes and all his company, and Mr. Boreman and Mrs. Turner, but, above all, my dear Mrs. Knipp, with whom I sang, and in perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of “Barbary Allen” [Barbara Allen]

Pepys also writes about his frequent visits to one of London’s most successful commercial publishers and booksellers, John Playford, who, from 1647 for some twenty years, had a shop in the porch of the Temple Church just off Fleet Street.

23 November 1666: At the Temple I called at Playford’s, and there find that his new impression of his ketches [catches] are not yet out, the fire having hindered it, but his man tells me that it will be a very fine piece, many things new being added to it.

Playford’s most famous publication today is his compendium of popular dance tunes,

The English Dancing Master, which from 1651 went into some eighteen editions. Each tune appears in notation, and below it are the instructions for the dance steps. Certainly it seems that music and dance often went together in Pepys’s domestic world – and presumably that sometimes entailed pushing back the furniture to make space:

6 January 1667/68: By and by to my house, to a very good supper, and mighty merry, and good musick playing; and after supper to dancing and singing till about twelve at night; and then we had a good sack posset for them, and an excellent cake, cost me near 20s., of our Jane’s making, which was cut into twenty pieces, there being by this time so many of our company, by the coming in of young Goodyer and some others of our neighbours, young men that could dance, hearing of our dancing; and anon comes in Mrs. Turner, the mother, and brings with her Mrs. Hollworthy, which pleased me mightily. And so to dancing again, and singing, with extraordinary great pleasure, till about two in the morning, and then broke up; 

Whilst dancing and singing with friends evidently gave Pepys much pleasure, time and time again he writes of his very real frustration at his own shortcomings when it came to his attempts at composition. This was partly the result of the tremendous musical changes that were evolving at this time: Pepys was more comfortable in the old style – even his beloved viol was going out of fashion in favour of the violin; indeed, it was said that Italy was now empty of violins because the English had bought them all up!

Perhaps, though, the most significant new development of Pepys’s age was the introduction into England in 1672, of the first public concerts which were the creation of the violinist called John Banister. At the Restoration, Banister had been appointed one of the Kings Violins; the following year he was sent to France, possibly to take a closer look at Louis 14th’s musical establishment, and a year later he took charge of Charles’s Violin Band. Pepys notes how he had the opportunity to discuss composition techniques with Banister:

29 March 1668: At home to dinner, whither comes and dines with me W. Howe, and by invitation Mr. Harris and Mr. Banister, most extraordinary company both, the latter for musique of all sorts, the former for everything: here we sang, and Banister played on the theorbo, and afterwards Banister played on his flageolet, and I had very good discourse with him about musique, so confirming some of my new notions about musique that it puts me upon a resolution to go on and make a scheme and theory of musique not yet ever made in the world.

It was John Bannister who, in 1663, was commanded, along with six other musicians, to accompany the Queen, Katherine of Braganza, on a trip to Bath. This was one of many summer visits she made to various spas to take the waters in a desperate effort to increase her fertility. Pepys’s own opinion of the place, having taken a dip there himself, was, however, somewhat suspicious: ‘Methinks it cannot be clean to go so many bodies together in the same water’. But the hot baths and the drinking of the water attracted a great range of visitors – not only the sick, but also the wealthy and fashionable who enjoyed all the sociability and entertainment the experience had to offer. For the Queen’s visit, Bannister was requested to compose some special music. He came up with The Musik att the Bath – a series of twelve short two-section movements all in the same key so that, amid the various ceremonies, dinners, speeches and so on, the musicians would never be more than a few bars away from a convenient ending, and able to come to a ‘graceful halt’ at a moment’s notice.

Banister’s leadership of the King’s Violin Band came to an end after a few years. According to some sources, he was accused of withholding money due to the band, but it may have been that he made himself unpopular by supporting his English musician colleagues: reports tell us that when the king called for the ‘Italian violins’, Banister told him in no uncertain terms that he ‘had better have the English’! Whatever the truth, it seems that Banister may have begun holding his own public concerts because he and his fellow musicians were not receiving regular payment from a court beset by financial problems. Indeed, Pepys had written earlier of how things were so bad that ‘many of the musick are ready to starve, they being five years behind for their wages’. Banister was able to call on many of his court colleagues to perform in his concerts and one surviving programme pamphlet mentions a vast array of instruments; he even came up with the idea of offering the services of a royal composer to anyone who wanted to hear a setting of a favourite poem or song.

In December 1672 an advertisment appeared in the London Gazette: ‘This is to give notice that at Mr John Banister’s house next to the George Tavern at Whitefriars this present Monday, will be musick performed by excellent masters, beginning precisely at four of the clock in the afternoon, and every afternoon for the future, precisely at the same hour’.

These enterprising musical gatherings could also be held in makeshift premises such as taverns, schools or dancing academies, some of them mixing amateur performers with professionals: for a shilling or two, the public could hear all the latest music – a hit song from the theatre, perhaps, a work by one of the continental masters, or simply an arrangement of a piece favoured at court.

Banister’s idea was soon taken up by other entrepeneurs. In 1680 Roger North tells us that in York Buildings (a block of mansion flats overlooking the Thames at Charing Cross, where Pepys eventually had an apartment) ‘a room was put aside especially equipped for musick [……] But although the best masters showed their gifts, I cannot say that the entertainment was good for it consisted of broken incoherent parts – now a consort, then a lutenist, then a violin solo, then flutes, then a song, and so piece after piece while the masters changed places and blundered and swore at each other’.

On 31 May 1669 Samuel Pepys put down his pen and his unique daily record comes to its abrupt end. His wife Elizabeth was to die just a few months later, but there was still much music to be enjoyed during the thirty-five years Pepys still had to live – including one particularly important relationship with a man named Cesare Morelli.

Despite his Italianised name, Morelli was a Fleming who was living in Portugal. He was found for Pepys by his friend Thomas Hill following Pepys’s request for a musical servant-companion. Hill assured Pepys he would like Morelli’s voice and his manner of singing: ‘He is the perfect Italian’, Hill wrote, adding ‘a very good, discreet young man’. Pepys agreed to pay Morelli thirty pounds a year plus ‘lodging and entertainment’, and noted that Morelli’s skill in languages, reading and writing promised to be almost as useful as his music ‘in which’, he told Hill ‘my utmost luxury still lies, and is likely to remain so’

By 1675 Morelli had arrived, and the relationship seems to have been ideal: ‘I have entertained myself harmlessly with Morelli, singing with his lute, till 12 oclock when it was time to rest’ Pepys declared. For some eighteen years Morelli transcribed Pepys’s favourite songs so that they fitted the compass of his voice, and supplied guitar intabulations to accompany them. Even when drama struck during the so-called Popish Plot and the Catholic Morelli had to move out of London and away from any suspicion, Pepys ensured that his companion was kept busy transcribing, and in spite of any danger never abandoned him.

Pepys’s passion for music continued unabated. On various trips we know from his packing list that he did not go without a guitar or theorbo and his recorders; and when that other famous diarist and contemporary of Pepys, John Evelyn, reported on a concert given at York Buildings (where Evelyn also had lodgings), he noted that Pepys’s own harpsichord was used, the player being assured that it was ‘the finest in England’. 

When Pepys died in 1703 at the age of seventy he was as certain as he’d always been that music was an unqualified and social good. It was his passion and, like all enthusiasts, he wanted to share it with others:

30 July 1666: Thence home; and to sing with my wife and Mercer in the garden; and coming in I find my wife plainly dissatisfied with me, that I can spend so much time with Mercer, teaching her to sing and could never take the pains with her. Which I acknowledge; but it is because that the girl do take musique mighty readily, and she do not, and musique is the thing of the world that I love most, and all the pleasure almost that I can now take. So to bed in some little discontent, but no words from me.

© Lucie Skeaping and the Samuel Pepys Club