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Nicholas McGegan Explores Music and Art During the 17th-Century Plague

October 5, 2020

“The parallels between the plagues of the 17th century and our present pandemic are uncomfortably close,” says Nicholas McGegan, the music director laureate of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra preparing to give an illustrated lecture about the subject.

As the guest of the Yale Center for British Studies, McGegan presents “A Theater of Tragedies: The Plague in 17th-Century England” on Oct. 14, beginning at 2 p.m. PDT. The digital lecture will stream for free, with the performance supported by the Terry F. Green 1969 Fund for British Art and Culture.

With emphasis on how such crises affected artists and musicians in England, McGegan follows the richly illustrated lecture with musical examples. The main difference between then and now, he told SF Classical Voice, is that at the time of the deadly bubonic plague, people had no real idea what caused the disease. (Not that we know nearly everything about COVID-19.)

“There was no CDC or Dr. Fauci to obey or, if you are stupid, ignore,” McGegan says, listing some of the principal characteristics of the situation back then (with curious relevance to our time):

  • Rules didn’t apply to the rich, who simply fled. They socially distanced from the poor rather than from each other.

  • Blame for the disease was placed on everyone who didn’t quite fit in: foreigners, the poor, immigrants, animals, especially dogs and cats.

  • Sin as the cause of the disease - lots of it!

  • Fake cures. Back then many of them involved live toads, hideous potions, even coffee. Everything but bleach.

  • Faking the numbers: Quakers and many of the poorest citizens were not counted and numbers were lowered toward the end, so that theaters could reopen.

  • Poor leadership

“I am very impressed by the quality of the poetry that was written at the time,” McGegan says, quoting from contemporary works in the lecture. “I wonder whether any will be penned during this pandemic?”

The conductor, who was idled by the pandemic, with a few notable exceptions, spent a great deal of time with research, “thoroughly enjoying it, especially finding musical and art illustrations. It really gave me a sense of purpose during the first months of the lockdown.

“I have always had a great interest in finding images,” he adds. “Both my parents worked in the visual arts: my mother was a painter and my father an architect, historian, and university lecturer. Sadly, they both died young.”

Visual illustrations of the lecture include such art as a detail of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; the “Bill of Mortality” for a week in 1665; a portrait of Samuel Pepys in 1666; David Loggan’s 1690 engraving of the King’s College Chapel; a print of the Great Plague in London by John Dunstall, 1665; The Rich Fly from London, engraving, 1630.

“I love being invited to talk at the Yale Centre for British Art,” McGegan says. “I could spend every day there. I’ve given many talks there in the past 14 years, almost all as part of exhibitions at the Centre, nearly always live music to go with them too.”

Among the two-dozen prime sources McGegan’s research used are William Austin’s Epiloimia Epe (1662), John Davies’s The Triumph of Death 1603), Thomas Vincent’s God’s Terrible Voice in the City by Plague and Fire (1667), and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

The Great Plague (1665–1666), caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, was the last major bubonic plague to occur in England, killing an estimated 100,000 people. Coincidentally, England experienced a spectacular flowering of music in the 17th century, a long list of composers running from Henry Purcell to John Banister to John Blow, William Child, Henry and John Eccles, Henry Lawes, John Ravenscroft, and many more.

An amazing show of McGegan’s expertise came when he answered from the top of his head my question about “Vilem Tausky’s Essay for Viola, played by Peter Sheppard Skaerved on the 1641 viola made by Jacob Rayman in Southwark.”

I am little confused about this video clip. The initial credits call the instrument a violin and give it a date of c. 1740. This cannot be right.

Jacob Rayman was a known 17th-century German maker living in London. Since he worked in Southwark, he was spared the destruction of the Fire of London, which affected only the north side of the river. London was largely immune from the Civil War because the king left the capital in early 1642 after which the city remained in the hands of Parliament.

All battles took place away from the city and the king only returned as a prisoner. Of course, the Plague affected everyone.

In the 17th century, instrument makers were to be found in three areas of London: around St. Paul’s Cathedral, near Bishopsgate, and south of the river in Southwark. Those in the city were members of one of the guilds, usually the Drapers. Of the famous viol makers, Meares worked near Bishopsgate and Henry Jaye in Southwark.

Southwark was a very raffish area not subject to the laws of the city. Therefore, it was where the main theaters were [including the Globe] and most of the brothels, built on land owned by the Bishop of Winchester who made a tidy profit from them!

It is interesting that there is no evidence that Rayman ever made viols, which represented the aristocratic end of the market. Violins were not highly regarded at this time, being played by foreigners and professionals, both presumed to be low class, and used mainly for dance music.

Their sound was thought to be shrill and “scolding.” Thomas Mace wrote they made a “high-priced noise” which makes “a man’s ears glow and fill his brains full of frisks.” Viols were played by nobles, including the king. Interestingly, it was considered all right for ladies to play the viol.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].