David N. Klausner

title.none: Rastall, Minstrels Playing; Rastall, The Heavens Singing (David N. Klausner)

identifier.other: baj9928.0211.007 02.11.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David N. Klausner, University of Toronto,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Rastall, Richard. Minstrels Playing: Music in Early English Religious Drama, Vol. 2. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. Pp. xxii, 549. $110.00. ISBN: 0-85991-585-9. Rastall, Richard. The Heavens Singing: Music in Early English Religious Drama I. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996. Pp. 422. ISBN: $35.00 0-859-91550-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.11.07

Rastall, Richard. Minstrels Playing: Music in Early English Religious Drama, Vol. 2. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. Pp. xxii, 549. $110.00. ISBN: 0-85991-585-9.

Rastall, Richard. The Heavens Singing: Music in Early English Religious Drama I. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996. Pp. 422. ISBN: $35.00 0-859-91550-6.

Reviewed by:

David N. Klausner
University of Toronto

Although I have been asked to review the second volume of Richard Rastall's study of music in the early English drama, TMR did not review the first volume The Heavens Singing, which appeared in 1996. This review, then, will provide commentary on the first as well as the second volume. The two are closely linked, and it would not really be possible to discuss one without the other.

The difference between the two volumes is primarily one of focus. They discuss the same repertoire of plays; the first volume from a general and thematic perspective, considering such topics as the relevance of documentary evidence, the use of liturgical music, the use of music for representational purposes, and the structural uses of music. The second volume considers the musical requirements (and possibilities) of each individual play in the repertoire. This repertoire is carefully defined at the beginning of volume to include almost all English vernacular drama until the early sixteenth century. Rastall discusses all the surviving biblical plays, including the plays of York, Chester, Coventry, the series of plays assembled under the rubrics of 'Towneley' and 'N-Town,' as well as the Cornish Ordinalia and the surviving individual and fragmentary plays. Among the moralities, he includes the early fragments (Pride of Life and Dux Moraud) and the Macro plays -- The Castle of Perseverance, Mankind, and Wisdom. He does not deal with the somewhat later plays, such as Everyman and Fulgens and Lucrece, arguing that they have more in common with the interludes of the sixteenth century than with their predecessors of the previous century. Rastall includes the Digby plays of Mary Magdalene, The Conversion of St. Paul, and The Killing of the Children, the Cornish Beunans Meriasek as well as the miracle play The Croxton Play of the Sacrament.

Two purposes inform both the volumes; first, to demonstrate the extent to which we can recover the ways in which decisions about music were made by performers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and second, to guide modern performers in making appropriate decisions about the use of music. These decisions involve the interpretation of stage directions as well as textual references to music, the realization of appropriate liturgical music both for time and place, the possible use of music for structural purposes where textual indications are lacking, and the surviving sources of music from the period.

Rastall begins with a discussion of lyrics and texts for songs, which occur with some frequency without music, and -- far less frequently -- with music. Particularly useful is Rastall's extensive consideration of the two well-known songs in the Coventry Shearmen and Tailors' pageant, for which the transmission is complicated by the fact that our only surviving source is Thomas Sharp's 1825 edition, since the manuscript was destroyed in the 1871 Birmingham Reference Library fire. Closely linked with this is a thorough study of the music which does survive with various plays, including not only the Coventry songs, but the miscellaneous liturgical pieces in York Play 45. Rastall includes in this discussion the fragmentary materials in Ms Shrewsbury School VI and Cambridge, Magdalene College, Pepys 1236, since they constitute the best surviving evidence for the use of polyphonic music in plays. Facsimiles are included of much of this manuscript material.

Documentary evidence, of the type appearing in considerable bulk under the aegis of Records of Early English Drama, can be tricky to assess, and in a brief but searching chapter, Rastall considers the kinds of conclusions which may be drawn from it. He takes as object lesson John Coldewey's theory that the plays performed Chelmsford, Essex, in the summer of 1562 were in fact the Digby plays. Rastall's careful analysis of payments to the minstrels on this occasion shows that, while we cannot prove beyond doubt that the Digby plays were performed, there is a considerable likelihood that they were.

The most important part of the first volume is Rastall's extensive discussion of the use of liturgical music in the plays. Many plays include indications of the use of chant, from the angel's "Gloria" in the shepherds' plays to the "Atollite portas" in many of the Harrowing of Hell plays, but it requires not only a musicologist, but a specialist in the liturgy of late medieval England to speak authoritatively about the correct chant forms, distinguishing appropriately between the usages of Sarum and York, and taking into account local variations. This chapter will become required reading for anyone contemplating the production of a play including liturgical music.

Finally, Rastall summarizes what can be known about the performers of music in early English drama -- whether they were amateur or professional, whether boy singers may have been used, the extent to which instrumentalists were drawn from musicians in civic employ and -- vitally important -- what happened when actors overlapped with musicians.

The second volume, Minstrels Playing, is simple in its outline, though it contains a wealth of detail even more astonishing than The Heavens Singing. For each of the plays in the repertoire, Rastall discusses the indications for music in stage directions and in the text itself, the use of liturgical materials, the relevance of any surviving documentary material, and -- summarizing all this material -- the use of music in the play. Rastall makes the specific point that he intends his work to be useful to those involved in the modern performance of early drama, and these detailed discussions of individual plays will answer virtually all musical questions which arise in the preparation for performance. With this in mind, his identification of musical indications in the text includes negative indications -- those places where words like "noyse," "high," or "low" might suggest a musical meaning but where none is intended.

But this wealth of material is not all; Rastall even discusses plays which do not survive, but for which we do have surviving documentary evidence, such as the Coventry Smiths' Play. He concludes with an extensive chapter considering a wide variety of aspects of modern performance, drawn from his thirty-year involvement with the performance of these plays. Much though has gone into his recommendations, which range from dealing with uncertain weather to the proper administrative relationship between stage director and music director, and ending with a summary of the sort of conclusions we can and cannot draw from the surviving materials.

It would have been useful to include some indication in the book that a thorough reading of the Preface and Bibliographical Notes is essential to its efficient use. For example, Rastall's analysis of musical indications in the text regularly includes the categorization of musical cues by function. The eleven principal functions he identifies are highly abbreviated in the text, and refer back to a chart which is given only in the Preface (p. xii). Similarly, there is a table of bibliographical abbreviations, but textual abbreviations (such as SD for 'stage direction' and SH for 'speech heading') are indicated only in the middle of two pages of Notes.

One of the great pleasures of Rastall's work is that in addition to dealing carefully with both the surviving playtexts and the documentary materials from the period, it is also the product of a long personal involvement with these plays. Rastall is never hesitant to express his opinion about controversial questions or problems, but he is also careful to distinguish between opinion and verifiable conclusion. I would cite as an example the discussion of the possible importance of numerology in several of the York plays. That there is structural symmetry in these plays is undeniable, as is the fact that music is used to define these structures. Previous scholars, though occasionally noting this symmetry, have declined to comment on it. Rastall draws a particularly interesting conclusion, that this numerological structure shows "the way in which the provision of music may affect this structure, and -- most important of all, I think -- the use of music by the playwright as a means of creating a structure that would otherwise not exist" (249, Rastall's emphasis).

These two volumes will be an essential tool for all scholars and performers working in early English drama. They represent the very best work done in the field over the past thirty years, and it will be a long time before they are superseded.