The role of women in the Tudor age of England (1485 – 1603) was a topic of public and published debate, usually argued and authored by men. Shortly after the Tudor age ended, one particularly misogynistic pamphlet was by Joseph Swetnam (1615) titled “The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward [sic] and Unconstant Women.” It provoked three women to publish texts in response, the first of which was by Rachel Speght (1617) titled “A Mouzell for Melastomus” (a muzzle for the evil mouth). In Crooked by Nature I draw the majority of the lyrics from these two related texts. One additional and inspiration line by Queen Elizabeth I is also included, as are Greek and Latin translations of words like man, woman, evil, mouth, and queen. I use settings of the text resembling traditional Renaissance vocal counterpoint juxtaposed with contemporary choral techniques like prose recitation, mob chants, glissandi, and a type of animated speaking where the shape of the spoken pitch is directed in the music.
The challenge of the commission was to illuminate women in the context of the Tudor age. As I dug into the piece, it struck me how so much music from this time still survives and is sung and cherished today while many other parts of English life and art appear archaic and discriminatory by today’s standards. We somehow separate the music from the context it came from: we don’t hear the horrors experienced by women at the same time the beautiful Renaissance counterpoint was being written. Is this a blessing or a curse of the musical arts?
Over 400 years have passed and the lives of women have improved immensely. And yet there are chilling similarities in the words of Swetnam that I hear still directed at women today – like crooked for one. I am thankful to be able to live and compose in the time that I do, but I realize that the struggles women have faced for too long will still continue.
Queen Elizabeth I (1588) – from a speech given to troops in Essex preparing for a Spanish invasion
“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”
Joseph Swetnam (1615) “The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward [sic] and Unconstant Women” (excerpts)
“Women are called Night crows.
Eagles eat not men til they are dead but women devour them alive.
Then who can but say that women sprung from the devil?
And he also saith that they were made of the rib of a man and that their forward nature shows, for the rib is
a crooked thing, good for nothing, for women are crooked by nature.
I pray you let us consider the times past with the times present.”
Rachel Speght (1617) “A Mouzell for Melastomus*, or an Apologetical Answer to that Irreligious and Illiterate pamphlet made by Joseph Swetnam and by him Entitled The Arraignment o fWomen.” (*A muzzle for the evil mouth – excerpts)
“The efficiency of women’s creation was Jehovah the eternal.
The truth of which is manifest in Moses’ narration.
Yet was she not produced from Adam’s foot? Not to be his too low inferior, Nor near his head to be his
superior, but from his side near his heart to be his equal.That where he is lord she may be Lady.”
Words translated into Latin and Greek femina – woman
“homine – man
mela – evil
stoma – mouth
regina – queen”
Adapted text by Carmen Braden
lock her up”
Commissioned and premiered by Luminous Voices, February 23 2020, Calgary AB. With many thanks to Tim Shantz and Luminous voices for their championing of new works relevant to our time.
Dedicated to my friend and teacher Gordon J. Callon, who first showed me the beauty of music from long ago.