Note: This is one of several lessons in a unit focused around the song “Scarborough Fair.” The lesson introduces various aspects of the Renaissance period. A PowerPoint presentation found in the materials and equipment section can be used to help facilitate the unit.
Teacher background: The beginning of the Renaissance was self-defined, but the previous period, the Middle Ages, was defined by the originators of the Renaissance. Like the Middle Ages, the Baroque period (which followed the Renaissance) wasn’t defined until much later, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This European cultural shift from Renaissance to Baroque happened gradually; therefore, precise and definitive dates are impossible. Nominally, however, 1600 to 1750 marks the development of an audibly different range of musical styles, called the Baroque period. However, the broadside ballads and other music of the common people remained very similar in the Baroque time period as in the Renaissance.
The invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy profoundly affected music-making. Musicians in households were now able to write down music, use the new printed songbooks of composers, and sing from broadside ballad sheets sold in the street. The spread of printing and literacy affects our own knowledge of the period, because there are more surviving instructions for dances and more printed music from the time. (For more information about this, click here.)
Teacher: Can you think of any other reasons people during the 1600s wanted to hear “Scarborough Fair” besides to tell a story? What do you think were some purposes for music in general? Can you think of any other purposes for this song in particular? What are some things that you do for fun today? What are some things you think people in the 1600s did for entertainment?
Teacher: The people in the 1600s didn’t have TV or video games. A lot of them were starting to learn how to read because the printing press was still a fairly new invention. So what did they do to occupy their time? They danced!
Teacher: We know this because in England there was a man named John Playford (1623–1687) who published a book series called The Dancing Master. The first edition in 1651 sold out quickly, so a second edition with nine additional dances was published the next year, even though public dancing was forbidden by the Puritan law up until 1660. (For more information about why it was forbidden, see the section “Additional Resources.”)
Teacher: New editions were continually printed for over 75 years, until the last edition was printed in 1728. The Dancing Master outlived John Playford and even his son, Henry, who continued the work until he neared his own death. From 1706 to 1728, the work was continued by John Young. The first edition contained 105 dances with single-line melodies. Each later edition introduced new songs and dances and dropped others, depending on what was popular. Can you think of a dance that is popular right now? Do you think that dance will still be popular in a couple of years?
Teacher: One of the most interesting things about this series of books is that so many of its tunes had been popular since the Renaissance. John Playford wrote in his collection that they were “great tunes which had stood the test of time, many of which remain popular to this day among lovers of traditional music.” The additional tunes, which increased with each printing, were a mixture of the melodies of new songs in the theatre and the latest popular broadside ballad tunes. John Playford’s The Dancing Master is one of the earliest surviving collections, but there are references to "country dances" or even "English country dances" as early as 1551, and Queen Elizabeth (who died in 1603) was repeatedly said to have encouraged and danced country dances. So these dances could have been done much earlier than we know. (For more information about John Playford and The Dancing Master, click here or here.)
Teacher: Let’s see what some of these popular dances looked like. Watch closely, because we are going to do the dance ourselves.
Have students watch the video of the “Scarborough Fair” dance several times, asking them to share what they noticed, such as the steps and movement of the dancers.
Break students up into groups of four (two sets of partners), and review dance terminology with students through movement:
Bow to your corner (the person beside you)
Bow to your partner (the person across from you)
Right hand star—all walk in a circle with right arms in the center (clockwise)
Left hand star—all walk in a circle with left arms in the center (counter-clockwise)
Right shoulder cross—switch places with your partner by walking past them on your right shoulder
Teacher: Now it’s time for us to do the actual dance!
Bow or curtsey toward center of circle
Face corners: Take one step towards your corner, raising arms to make an arch
Take one step back, lowering arms
Take one step towards your corner, raising arms to make an arch
Take one step back, lowering arms
Right-hand star: Walk for eight counts in clockwise direction
Left-hand star: Walk for eight counts in counter-clockwise direction
Face partners: Head couple does a right shoulder cross
Next couple does a right shoulder cross
Head couple does a right shoulder cross
Next couple does a right shoulder cross
Repeat until the end of the song, then finish with a bow or curtsey
Teacher: “Scarborough Fair” is a song that they might have danced to, but just as words change in different variants over time, the dances also changed songs and steps, depending on what songs were known at the time and how the dances were learned or taught. The song listed in Playford’s collection with part of this dance was titled “Greensleeves and Pudding Pies” from 1686 to 1716 and then was titled “Greensleeves and Yellow Lace” from 1721 to 1728. Some of you might recognize this melody as a different song.
Watch the YouTube version of “Greensleeves.”
Teacher: Did anyone recognize the song? How is the dance the same? How is it different? Let’s figure out how to dance the “Greensleeves” version.
Allow students time to figure out the differences.
Dance extension: Allow students to create their own Renaissance-style dance(s), drawing from the movements they learned today, but in new combinations and patterns.
Teacher: What instruments did you hear accompanying this version of the dance? (Recorder, tambourine, lute, or guitar)
Teacher: All of these instruments were used in Renaissance and Baroque music. Many instruments originated during the Renaissance; others were variations of, or improvements upon, instruments that had existed previously in the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, instruments were considered to be less important than voices, so they were used for dances and for accompanying vocal music.
Teacher: The recorder was first used as an instrument in Europe during the Middle Ages and continued as a popular choice for composers and musicians in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, but it stopped being used in the Classical and Romantic periods. However, it was revived in the twentieth century when people started trying to play music in historically accurate ways. Listen to what “Scarborough Fair” sounds like played on a recorder.
Play “Scarborough Fair” on the recorder while students listen, or have students listen to a duet of a recorder and Flemish harpsichord or a recorder consort (a group of recorders of different sizes playing together is called a consort).
Recorder extension: If you have recorders in your school, this would be a great introduction to learning how to play them. Recorders are a hands-on connection to the Renaissance and Baroque periods. “Scarborough Fair” would be a good piece to work towards learning, but it is not a beginning recorder piece. In addition to the sheet music, here is a website that shows the fingerings for “Scarborough Fair”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=600iadl1zYE&vl=en.
This lesson can be used to meet standards in many grades and subject areas. We will highlight one grade’s standards to give an example of application.