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The Role of Music in the York Cycle of Mystery Plays

Seminararbeit 2004 16 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur




1. Latin and the liturgy

2. Music as representation
2.1. The music of Heaven
2.2. The music of hell or rather The sounds of hell
2.3. The music of the humans

3. Music and the audience




“Tunc cantant”

The role of music in the medieval Corpus Christi cycle plays used to be an issue hardly touched upon by scholars of medieval literature as well as musicologists. Music was regarded as “merely incidental”[1], functioning as an “interruption of the action, or as spectacular device”[2]. Claiming that – in contrast to the traditional liturgical drama – the cycle plays were not musical drama, musicologists did not give the surviving evidence adequate recognition. Another important point is that the historical documents that were found indicating expenses of the guilds were not taken into consideration. Only in the 1950s, John Stevens started analysing the surviving music of the plays, and later on JoAnna Dutka and Richard Rastall, among others, occupied themselves with the critical completion of Stevens’ works and pointed out the importance of music to the essence of the cycle plays. In her PhD-thesis, JoAnna Dutka supports the view that music was “deliberately included for its dramatic utility as well as for its beauty”[3], and her colleague Nan Cooke Carpenter states that “modern drama was, in fact, born of music”[4]. If one looks at iconographical depictions of “Heaven” or heavenly places, one will notice the presence of Angels with musical instruments in their hands, which is another sign for the importance of music in biblical contexts.

This paper will focus on the origin of the music used in the cycle plays, how and when music was employed, which instruments were used and what effects this may have had on the medieval audiences. In the first chapter, the connections between the liturgical drama as a predecessor and contemporary of the vernacular drama and the cycle plays will be pointed out, while key elements of the traditional Latin liturgy will be taken into consideration.

The second chapter will deal with the questions about when and how music was employed, which characters were accompanied by music, which instruments were used to signify certain persons and places, and which dramatic functions the music may have had. The York Cycle will serve as an example for the four surviving medieval cycles.

The concluding chapter will then be focusing on the emotive effects of the music – how it was perceived by the audiences, what allusions it may have caused, and which purposes were persecuted by the playwrights by inserting music.

1. Latin and the Liturgy

Aptly, the roots of the majority of the music used in the cycle plays can be traced back to liturgy as an origin. The liturgy is an integral part of the Catholic church services, and is therefore recurrent throughout the church year, thus familiar to audiences of medieval theatre. In England, the Latin liturgy was abandoned in 1549, when the Edwardian Prayer Book was introduced, and only experienced a short revival during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558). Since the “transition from medieval to Renaissance concepts of structure and style [was] only completed after the mid-16th century”[5], long after the continent had undergone these changes, one can say that the music of the cycle plays was to a great extent based on Latin liturgy and chants.

Biblical drama, in fact, derived from sung liturgy. Nan Cooke Carpenter describes this in the following way:

When some anonymous tropist perceptively inserted a few lines of peripheral dialogue into the Introit of the Mass for Easter - simple question-and-answer amplification, to be sung antiphonally – he opened the way for the birth of medieval drama.[6]

The oldest so-called liturgical drama, the Quem quaeritis play, dates back to the mid-tenth century, and was found in the monastery of St. Gall (now Switzerland). It featured four singing parts – an angel and the three Marys. As time went on, especially Nativity and Easter Masses “broadened to include action and scenic representation”[7], and liturgical plays became a common part of Catholic Church services. Along with these plays, which were inspired by biblical stories, there developed also a body of plays inspired by non-biblical characters, which are nowadays referred to as “miracle plays”. These plays dramatized saints’ legends and became part of the Office on the appropriate feast days.

Throughout the higher and late Middle Ages, a gradual transition of the Biblical plays can be observed: “[f]rom the church with its readymade body of professional musicians” the plays moved “to the town laity and […] from Latin to the vernacular”[8]. It is to be assumed that after the introduction of Corpus Christi Day by Pope Clement V in 1311, the music of the liturgy (as employed in the liturgical drama) was simply taken over and used in the cycle plays. The reasons for the application of this technique may be on the one hand that “liturgy was an integral part of life – […] – so that clerics and religious form the basis of the class in which dramatists would be found”[9], and on the other hand, it might have been applied in order to reinforce the audiences’ faith in God, since the employment of liturgy underlines the biblical sources of the single cycle plays. Also, “religious events of the audience’s daily life [(churchgoing, marriages, funerals)] are related to the action being represented before them by appropriate music that vividly establishes the ritual setting.”[10] The impact of the use of liturgy on the audiences will be discussed in chapter 3.

The York Cycle provides the readers with numerous cues that hint to Latin liturgy. In the barkers’ play of The Fall of the Angels, the stage direction “Tunc cantant angeli, ‘Te deum laudamus, te dominum confitemur’”[11], which is a hymn sung at the end of Matins, is the first indication of the presence of music in the cycle. It is striking that in the original manuscript the stage direction appears in Latin, which could be a sign for the education of the playwright, and also the liturgical background. The Te deum was an important part of each Mass (it was usually the end of Matins, its ritual setting) and was undoubtedly well known to the audience of the play. Being sung by the angels, it leads one to believe that liturgy was applied in connection with angelic, heavenly beings, thus making music a heavenly quality. After line 40, another stage direction indicates: “Tunc cantant angeli, ‘Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, dominus deus sabaoth’”[12], which suggests that the hymn might have carried on during God’s speech in between lines 25 and 40, as this line belongs to the Te deum as well. Therefore, the theory that music was simply a device to mark endings and beginnings of single plays can be defied. The Te deum plays a very important role in medieval drama on the whole. It also marked the conclusion of many liturgical plays. According to Edmund A. Bowles

… in all medieval dramas, however far from the actual liturgy their texts might be, the religious element was brought sharply back into focus by the singing of a Te deum, often to the accompaniment of bells or organ[13]

Another play to be taken into consideration when studying the influence of Latin and the Latin liturgy on the York cycle, is the Spicers’ “Annunciation and the Visitation”. Numerous Latin lines can be found here, spoken by the Doctour. It is unclear whether these lines were sung or hinted to songs. Richard Rastall suggests that “the Latin lines seem to be ‘footnote’ authorities that explain some of the English lines: there is no reason to sing any of them”[14]. The Latin quotes, however, hint to Biblical references, therefore possibly authorizing the play text. Yet, the music cues in this play are widespread: One unnamed cue can be found (“Tunc cantat angelus”[15] ), and it can be assumed that it was Ave Maria that was sung by the Angel, since it is paraphrased in English immediately afterwards. This technique was most likely employed in order to relate the meaning of the liturgy to the medieval audiences, who sang these Latin antiphons and hymns without knowing what they were actually singing. This is another point that supports the educational value of the mystery plays – not only were the audiences confronted with biblical episodes, but also with an “explanation” of the Catholic liturgy.


[1] JoAnna Dutka, Music in the English Mystery Plays, p. 1

[2] JoAnna Dutka, Music in the English Mystery Plays, p. 1

[3] JoAnna Dutka, Music in the English Mystery Plays, p. 1

[4] Nan Cooke Carpenter, Music in the English Mystery Plays, p. 1

[5] Frank Ll. Harrison, Music in medieval Britain, p. XIII

[6] Nan Cooke Carpenter, Music in the English Mystery Plays, p. 1

[7] Albert Seay, Music in the medieval world, p 56

[8] Nan Cooke Carpenter, Music in the English Mystery Plays, p. 3-4

[9] Richard Rastall, Music in medieval English Religious Drama, Vol. I, p. 252

[10] JoAnna Dutka, Music in the English Mystery Plays, 7

[11] Richard Beadle (ed.), The York Plays, p. 49, after line 24

[12] Richard Beadle (ed.), The York Plays, p. 50, after line 40

[13] Edmund A. Bowles, The Role of Instruments in Medieval Sacred Drama, p. 82

[14] Richard Rastall, Music in medieval English Religious Drama, Vol. II, p. 24

[15] Richard Beadle (ed.), The York Plays, p. 114, after line 144


ISBN (eBook)
517 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin – Institut für Anglistik
Role Music York Cycle Mystery Plays Medieval Drama




Titel: The Role of Music in the York Cycle of Mystery Plays