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Christmas carols were popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime. During the reign of Elizabeth I, which was 1558-1603 and spans most of Shakespeare’s lifetime, England was experiencing the English Renaissance, a time when all forms of art were seeing a shift in popularity, but music, in particular moved from being something you would hear only in a church to being popular at more secular events. In fact, not only did Elizabeth I herself enjoy playing music, but as an art form, music, including Christmas carols and madrigals, was widely applied in early modern plays, like those of William Shakespeare, for both comedies and tragedies as a way to heighten the drama, almost exactly like what you think of as a movie soundtrack today. While instrumental music like that of the virginal or the lute were popular, one particular form of vocal performance known as the madrigal rose to prominence in early modern England as an adaptation of earlier Italian poetry set to music, which English composers transformed into a uniquely English genre. The madrigal became a popular way to celebrate major events, including Christmas celebrations, for Shakespeare’s lifetime. Here today to share with us the history of the madrigal is our guest, historian, and Early music specialist, Tamsin Lewis.  

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Tamsin Lewis is a musician and historian. She studied violin at the Florence Conservatoire before reading Classics and Italian at Oxford. She directs the early music ensemble Passamezzo, and has written, arranged, directed and played music for theatre productions at venues including Shakespeare’s Globe, the Rose Theatre and Hampton Court. She collaborates with theatre and dance historians and practitioners to reconstruct masques and other 16th and 17th Century entertainments.

Tamsin has done recent work in tv and film, including talking with Lucy Worsley about 16th Century Christmas customs in ‘Twelve Days of Tudor Christmas’ and the television show, Discovery of Witches, among several others. Tamsin is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and an occasional lecturer on Renaissance music and art at the Courtauld Institute.

I’ll be asking Tamsin Lewis about:

  • What is the typical format of a madrigal that makes it recognizable alongside other early modern music?  
  • If this form of music was performed at celebrations like Christmas, what is the difference between a madrigal and a Christmas Carol?
  • There was an English Madrigal School that existed from 1588 to 1627. Was this school a product of the madrigal’s popularity in England at this time? 
  • …and more!

    Christopher Marsh: Music and Society in Early Modern England 📚

    Lynda Phyllis Austern: Both from the ears and mind – thinking about music in early modern England.📚

    IMSLP: Petrucci Music Library

    CPDL – Choral public domain library

    Print editions:

    To Shorten Winter’s Sadness: English music and song for Christmas and Winter from the 16th and 17th Centuries.



    Old Christmas Returned: Christmas music and song from 16th and 17th Century Britain.



    17th Century Christmas Album

    Passamezzo has an entire album of restored Christmas songs from the 17th century. You can learn more, and purchase this CD, on their website. It’s the perfect way to to bring some Shakespeare history to your Christmas celebrations.

    I’m not an affiliate for Passamezzo, I just think their work is amazing!

    Christmas Carols & Madrigals from Shakespeare’s lifetime you can hear today

    Christmas carols:

    In this episode, Tasmin mentions Byrd’s song “From Virgin’s Womb” and we played Passamezzo’s music for Peerson’s “Upon My Lap” as an example (in the absence of the right copyrights to play From Virgin’s Womb in the episode itself). If you would like to hear the song by Byrd titled “From Virgin’s Womb” played by Fretwork and Helen Charlston, you can listen to that here in this youtube episode, provided to us by Tasmin Lewis. (Thank you, Tasmin!)


    Remember o thou man 


    John Attey: Sweet was the song the Virgin sang 

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    Sound Effects of Shakespeare’s Theater

    Explore the mechanics behind making music, thunder, clashing of lightning, and other key sounds on stage for the 16th century with our guests, Alexander Sovronsky and Chris Johnson.

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    Just for Patrons

    Music in the Plays.

    Sneak Peek at an episode from our back catalog

    You can listen to Ep 33 with Mary Springfels about music in Shakespeare’s plays, including history about instruments like the lute, the cittern, and the virginal which were popular instruments for Shakespeare’s lifetime.

    In this episode, we explore songs that appear in Shakespeare’s plays, and Mary shares samples of a song from Measure for Measure being played by modern musicians recreating the way it would have sounded when Shakespeare included in in his plays.

    Example of a Cittern
    Example of a Lute
    16th century painting that resembles one of the depictions talked about in this episode. More details in the show notes for Ep 33 (linked below).

    You’ll also hear about popular composers who wrote the song Shakespeare includes in his plays, and 16th century records of travelling players performing songs.

    If you want even more episode of That Shakespeare Life, be sure to check out our Patreon page. There’s over 150 additional episodes there that aren’t available on public listening platforms. PLUS there’s some great bonuses just for patrons.

    That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!

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