There was some surprise earlier this year when statistics from the Library’s Digital Repository revealed that, after the Book of Kells, the second most-viewed item in the collection was TCD MS 408 – the so-called ‘Ballet lute-book’.
The ‘Ballet lute-book’ is a composite volume comprising two unrelated manuscripts dating from the late 16th or early 17th centuries. The first (which bears William Ballet’s name) contains dance pieces, some for lute and others for viol, by prominent composers of the time. The second manuscript preserves popular dance and broadside ballad tunes of the late Elizabethan period, some of which are named in plays by Shakespeare and others. Amongst these the best-known is Greensleeves, but in an Irish context the most significant is Callino casturame (or Cailín ó chois tSiúire mé – I am a girl from beside the Suir), the earliest known notation of an Irish song. Also included is the so-called Lute book lullaby: ‘Sweet was the sounge the vergin sange’.
The music is notated in lute tablature, in which the symbols indicate the position of the player’s fingers rather than the musical pitch.
Prompted by the evident interest in this item, a second lute-book from our collection has now been added to the Digital Repository. This is TCD MS 410, another composite volume comprising two equally renowned music manuscripts: the so-called ‘Dallis lute-book’ and the ‘Dublin Virginal Manuscript’.
Though long known as the ‘Dallis lute-book’, it is obvious from an inscription on page 12 that TCD MS 410/1 actually belonged to a pupil of Thomas Dallis, who was a teacher at Trinity College Cambridge in the 1580s and 1590s. The volume begins with instructions on tuning and holding the lute, followed by some very simple pieces, so it clearly had a pedagogical purpose. It contains many pieces transcribed from Continental printed collections, as well as lute songs popular in England in the last decades of the 16th century. Some of these have religious texts; others have sober, moralistic themes. It is assumed that these choices reflect the compiler’s strong adherence to the reformed faith of late Elizabethan Cambridge.
TCD MS 410/2 – the ‘Dublin Virginal Manuscript’ – was compiled around 1570 and is one of the earliest extant collections of English secular keyboard music, pre-dating the more famous ‘My Ladye Nevells Booke’ (held at the British Library) by about twenty years. Almost all of the thirty pieces it contains are dances, and only one is ascribed – a pavan by a ‘Mastyre Taylere’ (perhaps the John Taylor who was organist of Westminster Abbey, 1562-70). The manuscript contains important evidence relating to the ornamentation of early keyboard music.
These manuscripts can be viewed at http://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/ – simply enter the search terms Ballet or Dallis.