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   Chapter 7 JOHN MILTON

Twelve Good Musicians By Frederick Bridge Characters: 9972

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


To many the name of John Milton will hardly suggest a musical composer. And yet I am able to include this name-the name of the father of the poet-among the band of "Good Musicians" whose careers and works I am considering. I have always felt greatly interested in him and desired to find out all I could of his personal history, and particularly of his musical education, for undoubtedly in the elder Milton we have a really accomplished musician. We are told he educated his distinguished son in music, and that he had an organ in his house.

Dr Burney gives a very good and concise account of him, upon which I cannot improve and from which I venture to quote. (Burney, Vol. III, p. 134):

"We come now to John Milton, the father of our great poet, who though a scrivener by profession, was a voluminous composer, and equal in science, if not genius, to the best musicians of his age: in conjunction and on a level with whom, his name and works appeared in numerous musical publications of the time, particularly in those of old Wilbye; in the Triumphs of Oriana published by Morley; in Ravenscroft's Psalms; in the Lamentations published by Sir William Leighton; and in MS. collections, still in the possession of the curious.

Mr Warton, in his Notes upon Milton's Poems on Several Occasions, tells us, from the MS. Life of the Poet by Aubrey, the antiquary, in the Mus. Ashm. Oxon, that Milton's father, though a "scrivener," was not apprenticed to that trade, having been bred a scholar and of Christ Church, Oxford; and that he took to trade in consequence of being disinherited.

His son celebrates his musical abilities in an admirable Latin poem, Ad Patrem, where, alluding to his father's musical science, he says that Apollo had divided his favours in the sister arts between them; giving Music to the father and Poetry to the son.

Nor blame, Oh much-lov'd sire! the sacred Nine,

Who thee have honour'd with such gifts divine;

Who taught thee how to charm the list'ning throng,

With all the sweetness of a siren's song;

Blending such tones as every breast inflame

And made thee heir to great Orion's fame.

By blood united, and by kindred arts,

On each Apollo his refulgence darts:

To thee points out the magic power of sound,

To me the mazes of poetic ground;

And fostered thus by his parental care,

We equal seem Divinity to share." (Translation).

The elder Milton was born in 1553, and is said to have been in the choir of Christ Church, Oxford. His father was a Roman Catholic, and it is said he disinherited his son for abjuring the Catholic faith. The son went to London, and became a member of the Scriveners Company (1599-1600). In 1632 he retired to Horton, in Buckinghamshire, having made a considerable fortune. In London he lived in Bread Street, where John Milton, the poet, was born. He contributed an admirable six-part Madrigal to The Triumphs of Oriana (1601), Motets to Leighton's Teares and Lamentations (1614), and Tunes to Ravenscroft's Psalter (1621). There are various Anthems and Fancies in five and six parts in MS. in various libraries.

Now here is a man who contributed to three or four important musical publications, and was included in a list of the best known English composers. Had he been a professional musician he could not have done more. But we know he was a scrivener. What was he before he became a scrivener? and whence did he get his musical knowledge? If we could prove that the suggestion is true which makes him a Chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, we should know where he probably got his musical knowledge and his proficiency in Latin. But this information seems to be impossible of proof. For the purpose of these Lectures I have devoted a good deal of time to this subject. Dr Strong, the Dean of Christ Church, now Bishop of Ripon, has been kind enough to look into the matter very carefully, and he writes me the following interesting letter:

Christ Church,


June 25, 1919.

My dear Bridge,

I am sorry to say that I cannot discover anything about Mr. John Milton, Senior. We have here a very important series of books called Disbursement books. These contain a sort of summary statement of the payments made under various heads. But what makes them of interest is that all the members of the Foundation, from the Dean down to the cook, received their payments through the Treasurer and signed a receipt for them in the book. So there is a whole list of signatures beginning about 1570 and going down (with the exception of the Civil War period) to about 1830, when new methods were adopted. It is always possible to discover by this who held each office, and whether they were in residence on a particular day. Unfortunately, they do not go back beyond 1570. I searched through a volume in hopes that Mr. Milton or the organist might be among the signatories. The singing-men and even the choristers are there. But apparently at that time

there was no organist, and certainly there is no allusion to Milton or any names such as you want, I think. It is a great pity we have not got the books from the beginning: the first 23 years would have been very useful. Also, my matriculation book, which is in this house, is very inaccurate and incomplete for the earlier years. I am afraid, therefore, I cannot help you as regards Mr. Milton. You will understand how very interesting these signatures are when I say that in the volumes I looked at the other day I found a whole series of signatures of Richard Hakluyt the geographer, who was a student of the House.

Yours very sincerely,


It is very unfortunate that the records in Christ Church do not exist before 1570. But it may be remarked, if Milton the elder was born in 1553, he would be seventeen in 1570, and would therefore certainly have left the choir of Christ Church, if he ever belonged to it; and this, of course, before the entries began. As to this matter, there are one or two facts brought out in Notes and Queries some years since which bear upon it.

Richard Milton, the grandfather of the poet, although a Roman Catholic, appears to have been Churchwarden of the Parish (Stanton St John) in 1552. Mr Allnutt, of Oxford, who contributed this bit of historical knowledge, writes: "Does this render it less probable that the Poet's grandfather was Richard Milton of Stanton, or are other instances known of Roman Catholics serving the office of Churchwarden under the Protestant regime of the period?" (N. & Q., Feby. 1880; W. H. Allnutt, Oxford.)

In the same paper, a little later, Mr Hyde Clarke writes on the subject of Milton's father being a choir-boy at Christ Church: "My Oxford and other correspondents, including Mr Mark Pattison, the eloquent critic of the Poet, who has laboured in this investigation have looked unfavourably on my proposition (i.e. that he was a Chorister of Christ Church), because they consider the Roman Catholic recusant can never have sent his son to any heretical school. An answer is now given in my favour by Mr. Allnutt, because if in 1552 Richard Milton could serve as Churchwarden, the other matter of providing a scholarship for his son was but a small one. It is further probable that Richard Milton became a confirmed Roman Catholic only in his later years."-Hyde Clarke.

I think it is quite possible and even very probable that Milton's father learnt his music at Christ Church. Then who taught him? Whoever it was, he turned out a thoroughly good musician. Milton's own compositions prove it, and, as we have seen, he is associated with all the best English composers of the period in more than one work. Coming to London, we are told he had an organ and other instruments in his house and to the practice of music he devoted his leisure. Masson says: "His special faculty was music, and it is possible on his first coming to London he had taught or practised music professionally." He was evidently in the musical world of London, and his house was probably the resort of many of the best musicians of the time.

The short Motet for Teares and Lamentations is in a good contrapuntal style, with many devices which a man would use if he had been educated in a Cathedral Choir. The style had "eaten into his marrow," as old Sir John Goss once said to me, in reference to a Chorister's daily musical work.

Another interesting matter is Milton's contribution to Ravenscroft's Whole Book of Psalms, published in 1621. Here are found two tunes credited to John Milton, but I think there is no doubt they were merely harmonized by him. The best one is a tune still often sung in our Churches-entitled York: this seems to be an old Scottish tune; it was published in Edinburgh in 1615. It appears three times in Ravenscroft's book and with different harmonies, two of them being by the elder Milton. The melody in this tune is, of course, given to the tenor, as was the custom at this time. The tune has always been a favourite, and an old author says that "it was so well known that half the nurses in England used to sing the tenor part as a lullaby."

This sounds rather startling! One would not believe that any baby could be put to sleep by hearing the tenor part of any hymn-tune. But the tenor part here is the melody, and really it has a gentle, swaying style about it, so that I, for one, believe the story of the Nurses and the Babies!

The melody is given in English Country Songs edited by Miss Broadwood and Mr Fuller Maitland, allied to some amusing words.

Although we cannot claim the elder Milton as a musician who did much to advance the art, I think I may be forgiven for having included his name in my list. So little is said about him in musical histories, and I have been able, I think, to get together some comparatively unknown matter regarding him, that I hope I have done right in giving a place among my Twelve Good Musicians to John Milton the elder.

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