The Alehouse Sessions
An introduction to the music and history of The Alehouse Sessions by creator Bjarte Eike
The last couple of years, I have been very interested in a certain period of time in London. A time where professional musicians were roaming the streets without a venue to play their music – because all theatres were closed and making money on performing music was prohibited. I picture these greycloaked figures; how they’re hiding their instruments to protect them from the rain and wind – but also to avoid confrontations with the authorities – and then moving into the town’s taverns or alehouses to meet friends, drink and most of all to play and sing music. These gatherings of professional musicians became so popular that some of these places turned into so-called musick-houses; and thus became the first public concert-halls in the history of western music. Famous composers like Henry Purcell took part in these sessions, and composed lots of music for the occasions. It must have been an incredible atmosphere in these places – overflowing with music, alcohol, sex, gossip, fights, fumes, shouting, singing, laughing, dancing…
The pub has since the earliest of times been the English people’s second home. The establishments can be divided into three categories: the inns, taverns and alehouses (later known as public houses). In these establishments one would meet to eat, drink and sleep, but, especially after 1660, one would also hold political meetings, feasts, balls, concerts, gambling events, flower shows etc and, of course, these houses were the main venues for the extreme consumption of alcohol in the 17th century. By 1630, more than 30,000 alehouses, 2000 inns and 400 taverns were registered in England and Wales.
With the outbreak of the English Civil Wars in 1642, the Puritans had the Commonwealth parliament closing all theatres. The music masters of London’s churches and courts were scattered and left to fend for themselves. Some went to the countryside, serving as light entertainment for the aristocracy and tutoring their children, some joined the military and some church musicians stayed in London to become teachers. But with the closing of all theatres, most of the musicians ended up living rootless lives that descended to little more than begging.
Music making during the period of the Civil wars and Commonwealth was therefore largely divided between those who ‘chose to fiddle at home’ (either in their own home or in the homes of the Gentlemen that could afford to employ them) and those professional musicians forced to make a living playing in taverns and alehouses.
With all the professional musicians singers and actors now entering the pubs and joining in with the locals in musical sessions, one saw a significant rise of the quality of music making, with the result being that these alehouse sessions grew in popularity across the classes. A new type of tavern emerged – the Musick House. One such venue was the Black Horse in Aldersgate Street, London, where prior to 1654 one Edmund Chilmead ran a Musick Meeting – it has since been suggested that it was these meetings at the Black Horse that were the earliest public concerts in Britain.
In fact, these musical gatherings became so popular, that Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, in 1657, sent out a new decree ‘against vagrants and wandering idle dissolute persons…commonly called fiddlers or minstrels’, who were warned that if at any time they were ‘taken fiddeling, and making music, in any inn, alehouse or tavern.. or intreating any person to hear them play or make music in any of these places’ they were to be adjudged ‘rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars, and proceeded against and punished accordingly’.
This made it more difficult for musicians to bring their instruments, but the demand for entertainment at the drinking houses was high, so instead people started performing vocal music like part-songs, catches and canons.
With the reinstatement of the monarchy and Charles II in 1660, everything changed for the musicians in London. Charles was a music lover and reopened theatres. He reinstated church musicians and wanted his own orchestra. But the King constantly had to deal with the never-ending fights between catholic and protestant, Whig and Tory, city and court – and also with the Parliament that kept a very close eye on the country’s economy – so he simply couldn’t afford to offer full time employment for artists, musicians, dancers, actors etc.
Charles II had, like his mentor and financier Louis XIV, a regularly-hired a group of musicians – the so-called 24 violins. But unlike Louis’, Charles’ musicians had to take extra jobs at the theatres and participate in the city’s public concerts in order for them to make a living.
However, even with the opening of theatres and building of new opera houses, the popularity of the alehouse sessions didn’t die out. In the 18th century it gradually became more common for promoters to advertise their tavern concerts in the press, and tickets were sold through subscriptions, in stores or at the door. The ticket sales were open to everybody – listening to concerts was not an activity reserved for the aristocracy alone. So, to be a musician in London back then, meant to be part of an extremely varied form of employment with enough activity to work the whole year through. But, for most people, it also involved a lousy payment, resulting in having to play music around the clock in order to put food on the table. They had no security, and often they played for free with hopes that some rich gentleman would take pity on them and toss them some coins. Not unlike the situation for many freelancers across Europe today. What strikes me, is that despite the authorities’ attempts to censor, prohibit and control the musicmaking, the music and artists survived, prevailed, adapted and transformed.