scroll scroll

The English Lute Song Publishers and Printers

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, The Lute Player

The First Generation of Lute Song Printers

The first generation began in 1597 with Peter Short's publication of John Dowland's First Booke of Songes or Ayres. 1597 was an auspicious year for music printing - William Byrd, the previous holder of the patent for music printing had died, and Thomas Morley had not yet taken over the patent. This meant that there was greater freedom (not to mention economic advantage) to publishing since the printers did not have to answer to or pay a patent holder. Peter Short's first lute song book print set the standard for format and, to a lesser extent, number of songs. The table book format was used in all thirty songbooks. Dowland's first book contained 21 songs, as did the majority of songs that followed. Short was the second-most prolific lute song printer despite the fact that he died six years after he published Dowland's first book.

Thomas East printed only three books of lute songs, but numerous other musical and non-musical prints during his lifetime, including the well-known Musica transalpina and The Triumphs of Oriana.

The last of the first generation of lute song printers was John Windet, who, like Peter Short, printed six books of lute songs before his retirement in 1611. The six lute song books represent half of his printing output, but his other prints are highly significant, most notably Dowland's Lachrimae or Seven Teares (a book of viol consort pieces).

The Second Generation of Printers

Following a series of twists and turns, deaths and remarriages, the second generation of printers all obtained their printing materials and rights from the first generation. To aid in your understanding of the relationships between the printers, you may find this pdf useful.

Humphrey Lownes who married Peter Short's widow and took over Short's business printed no new music books. His interest in music printing was minimal, and he confined himself to simply releasing reprints of Short's books.

At some point between 1608 and 1611, Thomas Snodham inherited his adoptive father's (Thomas East) business. Snodham was the most prolific of lute song book printers, printing eight books during his lifetime, some of them with his eventual partners, Matthew Lownes and John Brown.

William Stansby took over John Windet's (the man to whom he had been apprenticed) business in 1611, yet managed to publish only nine volumes of music during his entire life. One of those was William Corkine's Ayres, to Sing and Play to the Lute and Basse Violl. Throughout his career, Stansby appears to have had quality and editing problems - he was chastised by the Stationers (the body, like a guild, who controlled printing in England) for producing poor quality prints. By the time he died in 1638, music printing in England had declined to the point that he was the only man capable of printing it.

What Happened to Music Printing in England?

The first generation of music printers produced quality books and appeared to have had a strong interest in music printing. However, with the exception of Thomas Snodham, the second generation was less capable and much less interested in providing the public with printed music. After the second generation of lute song printers died, those who inherited their printing materials seemed to have had no interest in music printing at all. The reasons for this decline are the focus of my dissertation. It is likely a combination of economic feasability and changing musical tastes. By the 1620s, the lute as an accompanying instrument was becoming less popular, in favor of the viol and the harpsichord. In addition, English laws regarding printing were so stringent that the expense of printing music may have become prohibitive. Whatever the reasons, we can be grateful for the fine prints and excellent songs printed by these two generations of printers.