Here is some of the oldest of all instrumental music. Four hundred years ago, almost the only cultivated music was for voices. By the sixteenth century, however, composers had begun to write for instruments. Naturally. the style was at first a good deal like that of the vocal music, for the special capabilities of instruments had all to be discovered.
But English composers (who were pioneers in the field) almost at once began to find out how to write effectively for the Keyboard instrument of the day, the Virginals, and for the Stringed instruments, the Viols.
In listening to these pieces imagine the tiny tone of the Virginals, in which the strings (at a tension far less than that of a present-day Piano) were plucked by a quill.
One of the commonest forms in which composers then wrote was that of Variations-taking a popular tune and decorating it with lively runs and diversified rhythms, keeping the melody's outlines clear, and not much varying the original harmonies.
We shall see that style in several of these pieces. Some of the tunes we arc to hear were used over and over again by different composers ; The Woods so wilde was an extremely popular tune, on which several sets of Variations were written-notably by Byrd and Gibbons.
The Packington mentioned in the title of the second piece is supposed to be one Sir John of that name - 'lusty Packington' as he was called, who once wagered Â£3,000 that he would swim from Whitehall Stairs to Greenwich. But Queen Elizabeth, who, as one commentator says, 'had a particular tenderness for handsome fellows,' would not let him try the feat.
Giles Farnabye is a very attractive figure, for his music has more romantic feeling in it than that of almost any other writer of his time.
Debussy had a great gift for expressing the musical counterparts of moods and emotions. The great majority of his pieces are musical pictures' bearing definite titles.
His picture of the hills of Anacapri, near Naples, glows with the light and warmth of the Italian sun. We hear suggestions of the gay Tarantella dance and of a popular love-ditty.
The Snow is Dancing (from the Children's Corner Suite) suggests very beautifully the children's fanciful idea about the snowflakes and their merry dance to earth.
Puck's Dance is the airiest, daintiest piece, in perfect harmony with the sprite of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Read the opening of Act II before listening to this piece.
In The Island of Happiness we may imagine a pleasure-party depicted in the style of Watteau. It will be noted, in this and the other pieces, how many different varieties of tone colour are used, and how the Composer thus uses the pianoforte, in a sense, orchestrally.