Friday, 15 December 2017

Raleigh and Music

Professor Ivan Roots
Back in 2009, the late and great Ivan Roots, Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University, was kind enough to give a talk about Sir Walter Raleigh’s poetry. The event was a prelude to a performance of ‘Even such is Time’, the cantata by local composer Nicholas Marshall which is based on one of Raleigh’s most famous poems.

I wrote about Professor Roots’ talk at and remember his conclusion that Sir Walter was ‘not a great poet’. Although Raleigh’s later poems made ‘quite good, subtle points’, he conceded, much of the early stuff was extremely conventional, ‘addressed to imaginary women like hundreds of other courtly compositions of the age’.

Professor Dodsworth’s edition of the poems, entitled Sir Walter RaleghThe Poems, with other Verse from the Court of Elizabeth I was published by Everyman Paperbacks in 1999

Music and poetry were valuable commodities in Renaissance high society. Raleigh, as Professor Martin Dodsworth writes, was a climber: ‘poetry was one of the means by which he climbed’.  And in what his biographer Raleigh Trevelyan calls the ‘shark pool’ of Elizabethan court politics – where a line of poetry could land you in royal disfavour or reward you with a thousand acres of a country estate – music was, to quote Dr Katherine Butler, ‘simultaneously a tool of authority for the monarch and an instrument of persuasion for the nobility.’

Engraving of a portrait reputedly of William Byrd (1543-1623)

Conventional they may have been, but Sir Walter’s verses were highly popular with contemporary composers. A good example is his ‘Farewell, false Love’, set to music by
William Byrd and published in 1588 in Psalmes, Sonets, and songs of sadnes and pietie.

Authorship of many verses ascribed to Sir Walter is a problem, but Trevelyan is one writer who believes that two further poems were penned by Raleigh and used by Byrd. ‘Wounded I am’ and ‘See those sweet eyes, those more than sweetest eyes’ were published in the 1589 Songs of sundrie natures.  Another poem sometimes ascribed to Raleigh is ‘Like hermit poor in pensive place obscure’, set to music by Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger and published in Ayres (1609).

English composer Orlando Gibbons  (1583-1625) by an unknown artist

A poem widely recognised as Raleigh’s is ‘What is our life?’, used by the leading early 17th century composer Orlando Gibbons and published as ‘What is Life?’ in The First set of madrigals and motetts (1612).

Here’s the full poem:

What is our life? It is a play of passion.
What is our mirth? The music of division.
Our mothers, they the tiring-houses* be,
Where we are dress'd for time's short tragedy.
Earth is the stage, heaven the spectator is
Who doth behold whoe'er doth act amiss. 
The graves that hide us from the parching sun
Are but drawn curtains till the play is done.

*i.e 'attiring rooms' as in a theatre. 

An indication of Raleigh’s standing among Elizabethan musicians is the fact that a special piece – ‘Sir Walter Raleigh’s Galliard’ – was composed and dedicated to him by the lutenist Francis Cutting.

St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. 

Image credit: Reinhold Möller

It’s good to know that, in some places which have links with Raleigh, music associated with him will be part of the 400th anniversary events marking his death. The London-based choral director and conductor Aidan Oliver told me that 29 October 2018 was ‘a significant anniversary which clearly has great relevance’ for St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, where he is Director of Music. ‘At the very least, I would expect that the choir could sing one of the settings of his beautiful ‘Even such is time’ at our Sunday Eucharist on the previous day.’

At least five composers have set this poem to music. They are Ina Boyle (1889-1967), Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), Herbert Howells CH, CBE (1892-1983) and two living composers: Bob Chilcott and Budleigh Salterton’s Music Festival Director Nicholas Marshall. 

St Margaret’s, of course, next to Westminster Abbey, sits alongside the Houses of Parliament, and Aidan is responsible for the music at many high-profile Parliamentary occasions.

Image credit:

It’s there that you can see the Raleigh memorial window over the west door, installed in 1882 and subscribed for by American donors. At the top angels hold banners with the arms of the United States of America and the Royal Arms. Below, various angels hold other coats of arms and Tudor emblems. Five figures are shown in the main window - Elizabeth I, Henry, Prince of Wales, son of King James I, Raleigh himself, the poet Edmund Spenser, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the celebrated navigator and Raleigh’s half-brother.

Image credit

Panels represent Raleigh sailing for America, his landing there, Spenser presented to the Queen by Raleigh, his imprisonment and burial. The inscription was composed by James Russell Lowell, the poet and diplomat who was US Ambassador in London at the time of the unveiling:

"The new world's sons from England's breast we drew, Such milk as bids remember whence we came; Proud of her past, from which our present grew; this window we inscribe with Raleigh's name".

Also in St Margaret’s, Westminster, is a brass memorial on the south east wall of the church, given in 1845 by the Roxburghe Society, replacing one of wood which had decayed. This includes Raleigh’s coat of arms (gules, five lozenges in bend, argent). The inscription reads:

"Within ye chancel of this church was interred the body of the great Sr. Walter Raleigh, Kt. on the day he was beheaded in Old Palace Yard, Westminster Oct. 29th Ano. Dom. 1618. Reader - should you reflect on his errors Remember his many virtues and that he was a mortal."

Holy Trinity Church, Exmouth

Nearer to Raleigh’s birthplace in East Budleigh is Holy Trinity Church, Exmouth.

Here there is also a fine stained glass window in his honour alongside an equally fine one commemorating Sir Winston Churchill.  The
Revd James Hutchings, Team Rector at Holy Trinity in the parish of Littleham-cum-Exmouth with Lympstone Mission Community and Rural Dean of Aylesbeare Deanery, told me that the Church would certainly want to mark the 400th anniversary. Prayers ascribed to Raleigh could be used in the Sunday service, the day before.

Local florist Daffodils  have kindly agreed to provide flowers for Holy Trinity’s Raleigh window.

This is one of the prayers mentioned by Revd James Hutchings:

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

It’s actually the first six lines of 58, of a poem entitled ‘The passionate man’s pilgrimage’.

A poster for the Budleigh Salterton Male Voice Choir’s 2017 Christmas concert, on 16 December this year

What else in 2018? Well, I’m no musical expert and wouldn’t dare call myself a poet. But I do dabble in verse, and I was pleased to hear that the Budleigh Salterton Male Voice Choir plans to perform my ‘Sir Walter’s Lament’, to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’ at their Christmas concert, probably on 15 December 2018, in St Peter’s Church, Budleigh Salterton.

I was so excited by the news that I took out my quill and composed ‘A Hero of Devon’, which I wrote to the beautiful tune of ‘The Ash Grove.’ You can hear it being beautifully played at

Here are the words:  

1. A Hero of Devon –
We hope he’s in Heaven –
He lived in the time of Good Queen Bess.
They said he was proud:
His clothes were so loud.
He had his faults we must confess.
His surname is Raleigh,
Or maybe it’s Rawley,
And as for the spelling nobody is sure.
We’ll call him Sir Walter
Queen Bess called him Water.
He loved her to bits but we’re sure it was pure.

2. His cloak on a puddle,
He said ‘T’is no trouble!
Your Majesty’s feet will now not get wet!’
The Queen smiled and said,
‘We cannot be wed.
But please do become my favourite, pet!’
Sir Walter became
The man in the frame.
Potatoes won fame as his favourite dish.
Virginia known
For Queen Bess on her throne.
A pipe of tobacco his dearest wish.  

3. With bicycles too
His fame grew anew.
His poetry also was not bad at all.
But Bess’ successor,
A man so much lesser,
Did craftily bring about his fall.
He stood on the scaffold.
The crowd were so baffled
To see English justice had gone amiss.
Sir Walter take praise!
Our hero from Hayes
Who wrote loads of poems much better than this.

Now, if anyone reading this would like to use my verses to pay a musical tribute to Sir Walter I would be delighted to hear from you.

But seriously, there’s much fine Elizabethan music, and verses much finer than mine, which could be performed at concerts big or small. The only connection with Raleigh is that they are of his time. 

I’ve noted a few here, along with a link for you to hear them. The first is Thomas Morley’s ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. Another well known Shakespeare piece is The Wind and the Rain from ‘Twelfth Night’ which you can hear at

I rather liked John Dowland’s ‘Fine knacks for ladies’.

And I’m now so enthused by the idea of helping to mark Raleigh 400 with music that I suggested to some friends that we should form a select singing group called, provisionally, ‘Walter’s Wailers’. We would perform, probably in intimate venues like the pub, or if we get really enthused, on the street. 

If you’d like to have some fun and join us, do get in touch.

Continued at


No comments:

Post a comment

Radical Ralegh

The point about Sir Walter Ralegh: historian Anna Beer with Millais’ celebrated 1870 painting at Fairlynch Museum.  Dr Beer’s visi...