The mid-17th century is a bit of a black hole as far as British music history is concerned – hardly surprising really, given that the British Isles were ravaged by civil war, and Cromwell’s Puritan government that followed put an end to most sorts of fun, including music in church, thus depriving composers of a vitally important source of patronage. However, a slender thread of continuity can be traced through this troublesome time, joining the great Renaissance composers to the next bright light, Henry Purcell. Towards the end of this thread stands Matthew Locke, who Purcell succeeded in the post of Composer to the King’s Twenty Four Violins at the age of just seventeen.

Matthew Locke © Portrait by James Caldwell
Matthew Locke
© Portrait by James Caldwell

Locke was probably born in Devon, around 1621 – the first we know of him was that he was a chorister at Exeter Cathedral, where he left a lasting record by carving his name into the stone near the organ in 1638. The cathedral choir was disbanded when the English Civil War began in 1641 and Locke spent most of the 1640s in the Low Countries, where he met the future Charles II and converted to Roman Catholicism. He returned to England in 1651 and wrote his first collection of music The Little Consort, a collection of pieces written for the pupils of a Mr Wake. Locke wrote in the preface that he had “endeavoured to comply with the Hands, Ears and Patience of young Beginners” and with the quirkiness and melodic charm of these suites, Locke does indeed succeed in the tricky task of writing music that’s both easy to play and enjoyable to listen to.

These days, Locke is probably best known for his collections of consort music, usually played on viols or recorders, or a combination of the two, as indicated by the title of one set, The Broken Consort, which was the term used for a group of mixed instruments. As in similar works by his contemporaries, in Locke’s suites, with their alternating fast and slow dance movements, we can see the origins of the great baroque instrumental forms, the concerti grossi and trio sonatas, that then eventually evolved into the symphony and the string quartet. Locke’s suites also typically include too a fantasia, a particularly English free-style contrapuntal form that was the backbone of the viol repertoire; Locke’s fantasias are wonderfully inventive, and his intricate counterpoint often finds its way from the fantasias into his dance movements too.

Jordi Savall Suites 1 and 2 from The Broken Consort 

Locke’s contribution to English music went beyond this rich instrumental repertoire though. Although the Puritan government closed all the theatres, a huge loophole in their laws against fun permitted some musical entertainment, generally in the form of the masque – a staged performance of music and dancing, usually performed in court or private houses. In 1656, Locke collaborated with four other composers on a large-scale masque The Siege of Rhodes, a work widely considered to be the first English opera and he worked on several other dramatic projects, both before and after the Restoration, including this music for The Tempest:

When Charles II returned to England to ascend the throne, Locke was well positioned to benefit from the restoration of music to the royal court. He held a number of important composition posts, writing for the King’s Twenty Four violins, the court wind bands and the King’s Private Musicke. With his European outlook, Charles II was very keen to have French style music in the court, but whilst making gestures towards his employer’s tastes by replacing some of the traditional renaissance dances with French dances such as the courante, Locke was a staunch defender of English music, believing that nothing from abroad could match it.

Locke was appointed organist to Queen Catherine’s Catholic chapel, but most of his choral music in both English and Latin seem to have been written for Anglican occasions: his larger-scale works are set with string accompaniment, but there is no evidence of violinists being employed in Catherine’s chapel. A number of works were probably composed for Oxford University where Locke was living in 1665-6 to escape the plague, and “Be thou Exalted”, written in thanksgiving for a military victory over the Dutch was designed for performance in the Chapel Royal.

Locke’s choral music is in a very English style, mixing long, angular instrumental passages with choral and solo sections, in which Locke’s gift for elegant melody and spicy harmonies is abundantly evident. When you listen to Locke’s choral music, you can clearly see where Purcell took his influence: listen for example to the sinuous twisting harmonies at the beginning of “How doth the city sit solitary”:

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, composers traditionally composed music to lament the death of their fellow musicians, probably the greatest example being Byrd’s “Ye Sacred Muses” written on the death of Thomas Tallis. Locke’s passing in 1677 was marked by a beautifully expressive ode for solo voice called “What hope for us remains now he is gone?”. Happily, the answer to this doom-laded question can be found in the name of the composer: it was written by Locke’s young friend and pupil, Henry Purcell.