4to., pp. , 22, , with woodcut headpieces and initials, and 55 pages of letterpress music; tear through ¶4 repaired, corners of a few leaves with old restoration (slight loss to woodcut headpiece but not to text), but a very good copy, in an early nineteenth-century Roxburghe binding of quarter green roan and red boards; the Haslewood–Schwerdt–Duke of Gloucester –Pirie copy.
US $20598 €18320
First edition of a scarce and unusual work of music theory, with particular focus on various types of vernacular music – hunting songs, dances, drinking-songs, love-songs etc. The ‘Discourse’ is followed by twenty printed exempla in the form of part-songs for four voices, twelve by Ravenscroft himself, five by John Bennet, two by Edward Pearce, and one anonymous. There are dedicatory poems by Thomas Campion, John Dowland, John Davies of Hereford, and others.
Ravenscroft (b. 1591/2) was a chorister at St Paul’s from 1598 (where Edward Pearce was his master from 1600), later progressing to Cambridge, where he graduated BMus at 14. His first publication, Pammelia (1609), was the earliest English collection of rounds and catches, with 100 anonymous musical examples drawn from the theatre, the tavern, the street and the church, and was followed by the similar collections Deuteromelia (1609), which includes the first appearance of ‘Three Blind Mice’, and Melismata (1611). A Briefe Discourse changes tack by included attributed works, including his own compositions, comprising play-songs, madrigrals and some unusual vocal jigs in a West-Country accent.
When he was at St Paul’s, it is almost certain that Ravenscroft was involved with the resident theatrical company, the Children of St Paul’s. Across his collections, he includes no fewer than 11 pieces setting lyrics from the stage, a number from productions staged by the Children of St Paul’s in 1598-1604. Here there are three such pieces: the ‘Urchins Dance’ (anonymous) and the ‘Elves Dance’ (by Bennet) from The Maydes Metamorphoses (1600), and ‘The Mistris of her Servant’ (by Pearce) from Blurt, Master Constable (1601-2), where it is sung by a courtesan.
It is likely that Ravenscroft continued to maintain some links to the stage in later life, as he was witness to the will of the actor Richard Cowley in 1617 (along with Burbage and Heminges). He was later responsible for 55 of the 105 psalm tunes in the important 1621 Whole Book of Psalms.
There are several variants of A Brief Discourse, this the one with no comma after ‘Discourse’ and ‘Bachelor’ not ‘Bachelar’ on the title-page.
See Linda Phyllis Austen, ‘Thomas Ravenscroft: Musical Chronicler of an Elizabethan Theater Company’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 38:2 (1985). RISM R 458; STC 20756.