Death Songs & Elegies: Singing about Death in Elizabethan England

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Music and death were closely linked in the Elizabethan imagination: harmony provided a link between heavenly and earthly life, while death was portrayed as an inspiration for eloquent song or, conversely, the silencing of life and de-tuning of society. The Reformation, however, brought profound changes to the theology of death and the associated functions of music. As opportunities for musical mourning and commemoration within the liturgy decreased, the significance of non-liturgical song for expressing grief in public or commemorating the dead intensified.

Considering first the 1560–70s fashion for death songs in the plays of the choirboy acting companies, and second, the growing trend for sung elegies in the 1580s, this article explores the role of non-liturgical song in representing and responding to death in Elizabethan England. The theatrical death songs mirrored the mythological swan’s song, representing an outpouring of eloquence in the face of impending death that played on conceptions of music’s ability to act as a liminal space between earth and heaven. The elegies were responses to actual bereavement and reveal how music provided both the medium and the imagery to express the experience of loss and disorder, or to create acts of consolation or remembrance. Though the Reformation influenced the prevalence of elegies and shaped responses to death within them, Catholic and Protestant elegies still shared both musical imagery and tendencies towards moralization and memorialization, despite their theological differences. These genres illustrate the musical creativity inspired by death and the social significance of song in fashioning responses to bereavement.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)269-280
JournalEarly Music
Issue number2
Early online date13 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2015


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