Early Modern Songscapes Project

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Beginning Fall 2018, partners at the University of Maryland, the University of South Carolina and the University of Toronto Scarborough built the Early Modern Songscapes platform. The project is a development partnership with the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. This first phase of the project launched in 2019 to correspond with the annual conference at the U of T Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies.

The Early Modern Songscapes project aims to develop an intermedia online platform to support scholarly investigations early modern English song. The project has three primary goals: 

  • To provide tangible insight into the flexibility of song as a genre by tracing individual lyrics and musical settings that moved through different textual and performance contexts in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England; 
  • To develop a digital interface that can productively animate the acoustic and visual facets of early modern English songs; and 
  • To generate an interdisciplinary and collaborative hub for scholars, students, and performers of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English songs that can also function as a resource for the music-loving general public. 

While there is a great richness, elusiveness, and ambiguity of the term “song” as a generic category in the period, Early Modern Songscapes will focus on “ayres,” songs composed with a primary vocal line and usually performed with instrumental accompaniment. Popularized in the late sixteenth century with the published lute song collections of John Dowland and Thomas Campion, the ayre evolved in the first half of the seventeenth century into the declamatory vocal style perfected by Henry Lawes. The genre’s emphasis on clear communication of text makes it an ideal case study for the rich interplay between music and poetry in early modern England. 

Although the ayre was a vital component of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century musical soundscapes, surprisingly few studies have attempted to use intermedia resources to capture the performance-based dimensions of the genre. 

EMS aims to complement and build on comprehensive databases such as The Early British Broadside Ballad by providing an online “songscape” that animates the ayre’s multi-dimensionality by juxtaposing archival sources, contextual essays, and audio and video clips. An intermedia approach to the early modern ayre will make the facets of song that often seem the most intangible—its sonic fleetingness, its movement through varied textual and social settings, its connection to the performing body—a tangible focus for critical discussion. Early Modern Songscapes also aims to provide a centralized and methodologically playful forum for performance- and sound-oriented conversations about song that are currently taking place in literary and historical studies, in musicology, and in gender and cultural studies.


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