By Brian Green
There could be no doubt, that if you received an invitation to dine with the Alleyns at their home in Dulwich you were in for a jolly, if noisy evening. On a number of occasions Edward Alleyn arranged for a group of trumpeters to come and play, another time it was a couple of drums and a fife. One time it was two of those the new fangled sackbutts and a cornet. Sackbutts? They say they are now called trombones.
Then there might be singers present, like Jack Wilson, the famous young singer and compiler of songs, or perhaps some musicians who also sat down to dinner….. or so the entries in Edward Alleyn’s diary and account book which survives from 1617-22, inform us. It also has some other interesting light to shed on this busy man. It is obvious that he had a great interest in music, probably as a performer but just possibly as a composer. Take the organ for instance. Soon after he built his Chapel and College (and Almshouse) in Dulwich 400 years ago, he bought a job lot of two, (presumably) second-hand organs from John Gibbs, the Master of Choristers of St Paul’s. One for the Chapel, and one for the schoolroom.
Was he persuaded by the various distinguished organists he employed in those early days of the College, to enlarge the one in the chapel still further? Well, something prompted him because on 13 April 1619 he paid John Burward (who had also done some work on the organ at the chapel at Hampton Court Palace) £5.10.0. for a dyapson stop and other work. Quite a sum, considering the price for the two organs together was only £8.2.0. But the organ now had added power or oomph, or in the jargon of organists - it could speak. It did not stop there, he also got Burward to build a new pipe a couple of months later. John Burward was still not finished with the Dulwich organs. On 13 May 1620 he was paid the more modest amount of fifteen shillings for ‘mending ye bellowes and tuning ye orgaine & making ye conveighaunce for ye stars turning ‘. This last item, a device for making the stars decorating the top of the organ turn while playing, sounds rather exciting.
By the time the diary ends, in 1622 still more work was being done to the Chapel organ, or perhaps this time it was for the schoolroom organ, or even both because opa Mr Hamden was paid for ‘ mending ye orgaines and making 3 or 4 newe pipes for a dyapason’. So who were the organists who were so, presumably, persuasive over the matter of the organ. We do not know very much about the first organist, Thomas Hopkins, except he was there from the beginning and witnessed the Foundation document. As he stayed six years he must have played the major role in decisions regarding the organ. Next was Benjamin Cosyns who was appointed in September 1622 and left in 1624. He was succeeded by Walter Gibbs. Whether Walter was related to John Gibbs, the master of choristers of St Paul’s we do not know. What is interesting however is that both Cosyns and Gibbs were noted composers of the English madrigal and both were also organists at St Lawrence’s Church, Ludlow.
In 1609 Edward Alleyn scrawled a note regarding his household expenses recording the purchase of a copy of ‘Shaksper sonetts 5d’. Not an extravagant outlay but interesting nevertheless as it is the only reference to William Shakespeare in the entire Alleyn archive that is not a forgery. So why did Alleyn splash out 5d on a book of sonnets written by his erstwhile rival? The obvious answer is that the sonnet was very popular in this period of English literature. The less obvious explanation is that the text of sonnets could form the lyrics of a madrigal. So was Edward Alleyn interested in madrigal singing? Well, just about everyone who enjoyed music was, in that brief period of flowering of the English madrigal tradition which arrived precisely at the time these numerous references emerge. Surely it is no coincidence that Alleyn notes the purchase on 17 December 1618 of a quire (25 sheets) of paper ‘with 5 rules for songs.’ Perhaps encouraged by early success in adding music to the words, he later makes further and larger purchases - June 1621 6 quires off royal paper pay off ye guift 0. 5. 0, July 1621 6 quires of ryall paper for songs 0. 5. 0. What is he doing with all this paper?
Another clue or perhaps red herring also appears in his diary. 11 July 1619 paid for 2 tennors and 1 treble viol £1.15.0. 17 May 1620 pd for another tenore vial which makes 6 IN ALL 0. 13. 0. So it would appear that he already had two viols and he certainly had a lute because another entry refers to spending 8d in buying new strings for the instrument.
How seriously Edward Alleyn took his music and presumably passed his enthusiasm down to the 12 poor scholars may be seen in an interesting inventory taken in 1634 by his cousin Matthias’ son John. Matthias was warden and general factotum while Alleyn ran the Foundation from 1616 until his death ten years later. He was succeeded by another cousin Thomas and then in turn by Matthias as master. We can safely assume that John Alleyne was a young man, probably a student and left Dulwich in 1634 to pursue his studies as a surgeon. We also know that he was not only keenly interested in music but actually ‘skilled’. It seems he was taking no chances when he left, that the College’s music tradition, inspired by Edward Alleyn would survive. He noted the contents of the inventory in the flyleaf of the Chapel Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, thus preserving it from interference.
The inventory records a large range of sets of madrigals by all the well-known composers of the day - John Wilbye, Thomas Morley, Nicholas Young and others. A set of Italian books 6 parts reminds us of the popularity and influence of Italian music at the time. There is also a set of songs 6 parts noted, are these the songs written on the sheets of music paper the Founder ordered?
In addition there is a list of musical instruments - the six viols mentioned in Edward Alleyn’s diary are all there, plus other instruments, the lute of course, but also a Pandora (also called a bandore) and a cythern, also called a cittern, These last two were large stringed instruments.
John Alleyne, now a qualified surgeon, returned to Dulwich as warden in 1669 and was appointed master in 1677. Were ‘the great lot of books for ye chapel of 6 parts another of 5 quarto’ still there over thirty years later, so surviving the Civil War and the putting down of music in church and the smashing up of the organ by Puritan zealots?.
John Alleyne’s fascinating inventory also mentions ‘A set of consort books’ by Thomas Morley. So it appears that Edward Alleyn either had some pals round for a music session on a regular basis, or persuaded his colleagues at the College to play his viols, pandora and cythern in his own chamber orchestra. Or might it also have been to provide some sacred music during the chapel services? He certainly makes provision in his Statutes for six paid ‘chaunters’. Two were also to double up as Junior Fellows - the organist and usher. These two were also required to teach the boys, prick-song, the ability to sing from written music. They must also have been instrumentalists because they were required to pay for replacement strings for them. Whilst Alleyn entertained hopes that other members of his Foundation would accompany the singing at chapel services, he aimed to ensure that good singing was performed by envisaging employing the remaining four chaunters at other times as additional handymen, who, when not singing in the Chapel would mend shoes, make clothes or gloves or perform embroidery. Every afternoon these craftsmen would instruct those boys unfit for university, in these useful trades.
Of course, it was all pie in the sky. They were never so engaged although the instruments and music were definitely there. What we can say with certainty was that in Alleyn’s ten years administering his Foundation, the boys learnt to sing, possibly play an instrument and that a good deal of music was made and composed in Dulwich.
There can be no doubt of Edward Alleyn’s dedication to music making. Did he, one might wonder, actually sing in any of the plays he performed, during the play, between the acts or as an after-show as was the custom? With his powerful frame and strong voice there is every reason to suppose he did.
Edward Alleyn - performer or composer? (or both!)
By Brian Green