Project Description

Early Modern Songscapes is an interdisciplinary and collaborative project focusing on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English song.

Songs exist in multiple versions; they have a proclivity toward adaptation and change. Influenced by historical sound studies, we use the term “songscapes” to describe the dynamic acoustic and textual terrain of early modern vocal music. Rather than assign a given song to a single or definitive performance, songscapes map changes in music and lyrics across space and time.

Our focus is on “ayres,” songs that emphasize the clear communication of text and that typically include instrumental accompaniment. Popularized in the late sixteenth century with the printed lute song collections of John Dowland and Thomas Campion, the ayre later developed into the declamatory vocal style associated with Henry Lawes, which reflected the speech-like rhythms of verse. Ayres serve as an ideal case study for the rich interplay between composers, poets, and vocalists in early modern England.

On this website, you will find Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and Music Encoding Initiative (MEI) editions of a selected corpus of early modern songs, together with audio and video recordings of those songs in performance. This resource for teachers, researchers, and practitioners provides insight into the movement of song across diverse textual and performance contexts.

Currently available are all songs included in the first book of Henry Lawes’s Ayres and Dialogues, printed in 1653, which exemplifies the period’s synergy between poetry and music. In engaging with this collection, our project prioritizes encounters with the fragmentation and ephemerality that characterized the song culture of this period—providing multiple versions of individual songs (including in recording) and emphasizing how a particular song might have appeared in various guises and contexts ranging from the household to the stage. In so doing, we seek to animate the versatility and volatility that characterized Renaissance song culture and to trouble the notion of a “standard” version of a particular song. 

The next stage of the project will focus on the ayres associated with Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s career coincided with the lute song collection boom in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and exemplifies the vitality of poetic-musical networks in the period. As such, Shakespeare’s ayres provide a fitting chronological bookend to Lawes’s. Ayres frequently surface on the Shakespearean stage—including in the songs of “Ariel,” whose name puns on “ayre” as well as song’s capricious airy medium. Only some of the musical settings of these songs are extant, while others exist in multiple versions. As such, they help to open up important questions about musical circulation while also foregrounding the theatrical stage as a vital site for embodied performance. In animating these songs from both textual and practice-based perspectives, the Early Modern Songscapes project aims to address a clear need for an open-access online teaching resource that can help facilitate the exploration of Shakespearean song in the classroom. 

This project is directed by Katherine Larson (University of Toronto), Scott Trudell (University of Maryland), and Sarah Williams (University of South Carolina). 

Our website is co-developed by the Digital Scholarship Unit at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the University of Maryland’s Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

For site data including our TEI/MEI files and our technical stack, see our GitHub repository