Music is, perhaps, of all the arts, that of which the origin and first introduction into any nation are most difficult exactly to trace, inasmuch as it leaves no memento or relic like nearly every other art; while a more advanced and perfect performance, at once supersedes and obliterates that which had preceded it. Both poetry and eloquence may obtain some permanent remembrance from their becoming engravers on our political or social records, and may be preserved in after ages to be appealed to as mementos of the condition or state of feeling in a nation at that time.
Of ancient British music we have no distinct memorial, and no very clear account. All that we know with certainty respecting it is that among the earliest inhabitants of this island, as among all other rude and warlike people, music and song were practised at their religious and martial ceremonies, and that particular officers, termed bards, were selected and maintained for this purpose. Music, we are also told, was cultivated with much ardour in this country from a very early date in the Anglo-Saxon period.
Musical compositions independent in themselves, and unaccompanied by poetry, did not, however, commence very early. In this, as in other nations for many ages, music was practised only as an accompaniment to poetry, and in union with the services of the Church. Yet no remains, we are informed, are to be found up to the fifteenth century of what can be strictly termed a British musical composition; and it is said that no English dance-tune has been discovered prior to the year 1400, although dancing was prevalent in this country from the remotest time’s.* Early in the fifteenth century, however, and towards its close, English music began to take a form in which, although in the rudest state, something like modern melody and harmony is distinguishable.
How far our numerous warlike expeditions contributed to advance or to influence this art, does not appear. From very early times armies were attended by bands of music, and songs of triumph were composed for the celebration of victories. Of these the musical performance which was used as an accompaniment to the song of triumph after the victory of Agincourt in rude vigorous strains, t is supposed to be the first regular musical composition in this country of which we have any remains.
The Church early afforded ample patronage for this art, and encouraged musicians from foreign nations, more advanced in civilization than the natives of our land, to come over and seek employment here. Music being moreover under the conduct of the priesthood, who were much beyond their age in learning, was not dependent on the general state of civilization in the nation. And it was during these early ages, as in the other arts, that some of the finest and most sublime creations of the art were brought forth. In later times, however, several distinguished artists in this branch have been proeduced in this country, although for most of our really grand music we have been indebted to foreigners. Indeed, of all the arts, music is probably that which affords the smallest test of, as it is the least dependent upon the general condition of art in any nation, or the degree of cultivation which it has received among the people, as of all the arts it is the most easily imported. Variation even in language is no impediment here, as it is in many cases a fatal one to poetry and eloquence.
Perhaps, indeed, most of the music, especially of the highest kind, now in use in this country either foreign, or was composed for words in a different language to ours.