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Ross W. Duffin, Some Other Note: The Lost Songs of English Renaissance Comedy
by Kirsten Gibson

Ross W. Duffin, Some Other Note: The Lost Songs of English Renaissance Comedy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 760 pp. ISBN 9780190856601. £36.49 hardback.


Early modern English plays abound with song lyrics and cues for music; indeed, music was an integral aspect of early modern theatre-going experience. Yet, surviving play texts including lyrics did not include music to which the lyrics were sung, and nor do settings of the vast majority of the lyrics survive in musical sources from the period. The tunes have been assumed by literary scholars and music historians alike to be ‘lost’ and unrecoverable; to attempt to recover them might be viewed, as Ross W. Duffin observes, a futile exercise, ‘mere guesswork’ (xxiii). Duffin’s meticulously researched Some Other Note: The Lost Songs of English Renaissance Comedy, however, challenges any such perception. Some Other Note is the result of a decade’s-worth of research, and in it, Duffin supplies the tunes for almost six hundred lyrics from around one hundred comedies dating from the fifteenth century to 1625.

The title of the book, Duffin explains, comes from William Percy’s Necromantes in which he calls for one of his play lyrics to be sung to a tune by John Dowland, adding that Dowland’s tune ‘may do well and best in this Place, els with some other note to this ditty’ (xxvi). Both the borrowing of extant tunes for play lyrics, and the flexible attitude towards which tune was used, accord with Duffin’s basic premise that the majority of play lyrics were written with existing tunes in mind, and it reflects his own approach to recovering the ‘lost’ music for the songs of early modern English comedies. This is an idea that Duffin first developed during his research for Shakespeares Songbook (W.W. Norton, 2004), and is grounded on a number of factors that support his premise. The same playwrights who wrote lyrics, for instance, also frequently called for existing songs in their play texts or quoted their lyrics, and the relatively few surviving sources containing settings of lyrics from the plays considered by Duffin – by the likes of Alfonso Ferrabosco II, Robert Johnson, and John Wilson – are dated decades later than the plays themselves. Such settings may, therefore, represent original settings circulating later in manuscript, but could also relate to subsequent productions or settings. And, as Duffin points out, while there was clear collaboration between the likes of Ben Jonson and Alfonso Ferrabosco II in the production of songs for court masques, for which court accounts show that both parties were well-paid, there is no such similar evidence surviving for play productions.

Duffin’s approach is thus historically informed and it is also grounded on a robust methodology of close textual and musical reading, which is substantially aided by his extensive knowledge of popular tunes of the sixteenth- and early-seventeenth centuries as well as a database of over a thousand song lyrics he amassed during the course of his research. One method Duffin uses is paying close attention to versification patterns – number of lines in a stanza and feet in a line as well as rhyming schemes – and comparing them against existing songs. In some cases, Duffin observes, the patterns are unusual or distinctive, and fit only a handful of tunes, or a single extant tune. One of the only tunes to set rhyming pentameter couplets in four-line stanzas, for instance, is the ballad tune ‘Fortune my Foe’, for instance. Similarly, Duffin observes that lyrics with a versification of 33223 were ‘almost certainly’ meant to be sung to the tune ‘Go from my Window’ while lyrics with stanzas of eight trimeter lines were likely sung to ‘Rowland’ (xxvii). The evidence is not always definitive, but the suggested settings are plausible and contextually grounded in what Duffin terms ‘informed guesswork’. In some cases, there are further clues written into the lyric or surrounding play text that give a clear indication of the intended tune. In John Fletcher’s The Wild Goose-Chase (1621), for instance, the lyric for Mirabell’s song in Act 3, ‘my Savoy Lord, why dost thou frown on me? / And will that favour never sweeter be?’ is a clear parody of the original ballad text for ‘Fortune my Foe’, ‘Fortune my foe, why dost thou frown on me? / And will that favour never sweeter be?’ (394–6). This was one of the most frequently used tunes of the period for broadside ballads. Musicians including Dowland and William Byrd made instrumental arrangements of it and it was so often sung at public executions that it was commonly referred to as ‘the hanging tune’. In The Wild Goose-Chase the tune’s association with guilt is used for comic effect; Mirabell sings this song to Oriana, his pursuer, and her brother, De-Gard, who Mirabell has just found out is posing as a noble Savoyard suitor to Oriana to make Mirabell jealous.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I (Chapters 1–6) establishes the background contexts for sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century comedies, exploring song in fifteenth-century mystery and morality plays (Chapter 1), and ‘Interludes’ written for the court (Chapter 2), St. Paul’s (Chapter 3), the Chapels Royal (Chapter 4), and the Universities and Inns of Court (Chapter 5). The final chapter in this section (Chapter 6) explores the influence of continental dramatic traditions from France, Ancient Rome, Germany and Italy on English musical comedy up to the late sixteenth century. Part II focuses on tracing the music for songs in London comedy up to 1625, and, for the most part, is organised by playwright: Ben Jonson (Chapter 7); George Chapman (Chapter 8); John Marsden (Chapter 9); Thomas Dekker (Chapter 10); John Fletcher (Chapter 11); Thomas Middleton (Chapter 12); Francis Beaumont (Chapter 13); and Philip Massinger (Chapter 14). Chapter 15 identifies music for songs by ‘Other Playwrights’ whose output of comedies was smaller than the playwrights with dedicated chapters (George Whetstone, Thomas Nashe, William Haughton, Thomas Heywood, William Percy and Edward Sharpham), Chapter 16 considers music for anonymous plays ca. 1600, and Chapter 17 concludes Some other Note with an exploration of music for jigs, performed at the ends of plays.

The book is organised to provide both a useful overview of the development of song in English dramatic works from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries and to be used as a reference work. The organisation of the first two indexes before the general index – one by plays and other entertainments, the other by song lyric – makes the book easy to navigate for cross referencing and research and this is further supported by the book’s accompanying open-access website ( The website includes the full bibliography (a select bibliography is provided within the book), a chronological list of ballads cited in the book with links for each ballad to the open-access English Broadside Ballad Archive (, a list of manuscript music sources containing tunes identified or suggested as song-settings (and listing the relevant tunes contained in each manuscript), a list of textual manuscript sources, a chronological list of printed musical sources (including lists of the tunes discussed in the book) and a chronological list of printed texts (including printed play texts) cited in the book. These resources are a welcome addition to the book and while they were likely kept out of the book for reasons of space, they are all the more useful in searchable digital format than print. This is especially so given that the research straddles musicology and literary studies and will be of use to scholars from both disciplines, since these digital lists open up primary source musical and literary materials for scholars who might not be familiar with the respective fields of early English music or sixteenth- and seventeenth-century play texts. The one potential weakness of the offering for readers who cannot read musical notation is that the tunes are given only in notation, and, unlike Shakespeares Songbook, there is no accompanying audio CD. This is partially addressed by the fact that a number of the ballads on EBBA, though not all, are accompanied by a sound recording of the ballad. This, however, only applies to the ballad tunes suggested by Duffin.

Ballad tunes do form a significant element of the music identified by Duffin. Duffin’s identifications of ballad tunes for use in plays align with what were particularly popular tunes (in terms of use for multiple ballads) outside of the theatre: ‘Fortune my Foe’, for instance, is discussed in relation to play lyrics 28 times by Duffin; ‘Rowland’ 18 times; and ‘Dulcina’ or ‘Robin Goodfellow’ 12 times. Psalm tunes are also suggested for a number of plays. For instance, Duffin suggests that the Sternhold and Hopkins tune for Psalm 51, ‘O Lord consider my distress’, is the tune used to sing a psalm parody in Part I, Act 2, scene 6, of George Whetstone’s Promost and Cassandra when a group of prisoners, gypsies, rogues and a preacher enter singing ‘With heart and voice to thee O Lord’. Duffin makes this suggestion based on the fact that it is one of only four psalm tunes in the Sternhold and Hopkins repertory set to tetrameters throughout, in addition to the penitential themes of Psalm 51 and the play text lyric. Duffin also identifies polyphonic ‘art song’ by the likes of Dowland, Thomas Morley, Robert Jones and Ferrabosco II as possible tunes for play text lyrics. It is unsurprising to find the music of Dowland suggested given that he, his music or the lyrics he set were cited or called for in plays by Chapman, Jonson, Marston, Beaumont, Fletcher, Middleton and Massinger as noted by Diana Poulton (John Dowland, second edition 1982, see 68). Amongst Duffin’s suggestions for settings of play text lyrics are the tunes of some of his most popular songs such as ‘Come again, sweet love doth now invite’ (from his First Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1597). Duffin suggests that this could have been the tune Jonson had in mind for Hedon’s song ‘The Kiss’ in Cynthias Revels, for which Amorphus notes its long ‘die-Note’, the stand-out feature also of Dowland’s ‘Come again’ (211–12). This presents an alternative to an anonymous setting of the lyrics contained in Oxford, Christ Church, MS Mus. 439, which has been assumed to be the original setting used for the play. Other identifications of Dowland’s songs are more definitive; Quicksilver’s lyric ‘Now, O now, I must depart’ from Jonson’s Eastward Ho is a clear parody of Dowland’s ‘Now, O now, I needs must part’ from Dowland’s First Booke (228–9).

Duffin’s diligent research restores music to early modern English comedy, reminding us of its ubiquity in early modern theatrical experience. It is invaluable to a range of scholars and has the potential to expand our knowledge of early modern theatrical and musical culture in a number of ways. For those interested in historically informed performance practice, Duffin’s research provides viable tunes that might be used in modern productions. The repository of tunes provided in Some Other Note might also be drawn on by the editors of critical editions to include reference to suggested tunes in their critical notes, or perhaps even the notated tunes. In turn, knowledge of the definitive, likely or possible tunes used in early modern plays adds layers of interpretative possibilities for editors, literary scholars and musicologists, and the ability to cross reference particular tunes in a wide selection of plays from the period opens up opportunities for explorations of intertextuality and tune association that would have been available to early modern theatre audiences. For music historians, Duffin’s research makes a major contribution, through the lens of theatrical music, to our understanding of popular music of the period more widely. Duffin’s identification of uses of ballad tunes, for instance, complements recent research on ballad tune popularity (Christopher Marsh) or thematic tune association (Sarah Williams). Similarly, identification of possible uses of lute songs and madrigals provides a gauge of the popularity, and circulation beyond print and manuscript and into aural culture, of the music of composers such as Dowland, Morley and Ferrabosco II.

Some Other Note is a remarkable achievement; a comprehensive reference book and a scholarly exploration of the historical context for and place of music in English comedy up to 1625. Far from the ‘mere guesswork’ with which Duffin opens his ‘Prologue’, Some Other Note offers thoroughly researched and well-informed suggestions, and sometimes definitive identifications, of almost six hundred tunes for around one hundred English early modern plays. This is invaluable reading for anyone with an interest in early modern English theatre or musical culture of the period.


Kirsten Gibson

Newcastle University



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Kirsten Gibson, "Ross W. Duffin, Some Other Note: The Lost Songs of English Renaissance Comedy," Spenser Review (Fall 2020). Accessed August 12th, 2022.
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