I live in Cambridge, a well-touristed little town, and when the sun is out the streets are awash with buskers. Some are quite good. For instance, there’s the chap who strums tunes on his guitar from inside a litter bin who always makes me chuckle even when his playing isn’t brilliant.
But there are also some that are decidedly displeasing to the ear. If only – I find myself muttering – these unmusical musicians had been sufficiently trained in the science of music.
In the seventeenth century, it seems the authorities took such renegade buskers much more seriously. Hence, on 2 October 1678, the Norwich Mayor’s Court ordered a clamp-down on those public menaces who wandered the streets both day and night spreading aural pollution.
‘Upon complaint of the Weights [i.e. Waits] of this City against Daniell Hot, George Ellis, Samuel Suffield, Mathew Crotch & Thomas Turner that they notwithstanding they were not bound apprentice to the Science of Musick doe goe from howse to howse & play not onely in the day but at unseasonable times in the night to the great prejudice of severall persons & their friends in this City & also to the Weights of this City, It is ordered for the future that if they or any other person besides such as are the Weights of this City shall in Companyes play in any part of this City eyther in the publique or private houses unless it be in the Assizes weeke, at the Sessions at the Guild time or the choice of parliament men shalbe punished according to the lawe.’1
The prosecution of these five men seems to have had two main motives. First, as I mentioned above, the fact that they were disturbing the neighbourhood by playing ‘at unseasonable times’ was definitely a factor. However, perhaps more importantly, they had also not been trained as apprentices ‘to the Science of Musick’ and were not part of the city’s official company of waits.
Who were the waits? They were, in essence, municipal musicians. According to the OED, they were:
‘A small body of wind instrumentalists maintained by a city or town at the public charge. … They played for the daily diversion of the councillors, on ceremonial and festive occasions, and as a town or city band they entertained the citizens, perambulating the streets, often by night or in the early morning.’
This group in Norwich appears to be the same body that later called themselves ‘the Company of Musicians’ and had their by-laws affirmed by the town’s authorities in 1714.2 In London, the Company of Musicians there were petitioning against ‘diverse Forreigners’ who were practicing ‘the Arts of Musick and dancing’ in 1699.3 They successfully won the support of the city which passed an act against such dangerous practices the next year.4
What’s clear from all this is that professional music-making – just like other skilled trades such as carpentry or metalworking – was regarded by many as a vocation that could not be pursued by mere laypeople. Instead, it was expected that if you wanted to earn money by playing catchy tunes in public, you would submit to a seven-year apprenticeship under a master musician who could train you in this ‘science’ or ‘mystery’. Those who failed to follow the proscribed route were liable to be suppressed and prosecuted by the civic authorities.5
The question, then, is whether it worked. Did these apparently strict rules governing public performances significantly raise the quality of the aural environment by shutting out untrained bunglers? Or did it simply protect the jobs of the handful of official musicians against competition from talented amateur buskers?
1. Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 33.
2. NRO, NCR Case 17d, f. 81ff (by-laws of the Company of Musicians, 1714)
3. London Metropolitan Archives, COL/CA/05/01/0005/1699 (petition of Company of Musicians, 1699)
4. LMA, COL/CC/01/01/050, f. 317, 358-359
5. Many of these issues are discussed in Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (2010), ch. 2-3