Are the waits really unworthy of serious socio-musicological attention?

James Merryweather puts the case for their defence.

Nowadays we are accustomed to the constant background rumble of traffic and the earsplitting rattle of pneumatic drills, and we pay little heed to the deafening roar of low flying aircraft. So, how would you react if a small group of musicians struck up under your bedroom window in the middle of the night? Outrage probably. When, mercifully, this disturbance ceases, you grumpily turn over to go back to sleep, but suddenly your peace is shattered for a second time when a stentorian voice announces that it is indeed as early in the morning as you thought, and states – rather obvious you might think – that all is well. “Past three fair frosty morn, good morrow my masters all”, he cries. From the fifteenth century until the early 1800s that was usual in every English town and city, and your benign response to this apparently intolerable intrusion would have been: “Splendid. Everything’s OK? Oh, jolly good. Thank you so much”.

In the days before flick-of-a-switch domestic lighting and street illumination which causes the night sky to glow from horizon to horizon, people would rise at dawn and return to their beds shortly after dark by the dim, irregular light of tallow candle or rush taper. During the night the streets would have been empty were it not for the activities of those few engaged in nocturnal trade, legal or otherwise. Crime was then, as now, a serious problem. There was, from time to time, the threat of invasion and the prospect of fire sweeping mercilessly through your home would have given reasonable cause for sleeplessness, so that you would have been happy hear that all was well.

The street musicians who provided this reassurance service were the waits, a completely normal feature of urban life whose activities would have been familiar to residents, asleep and awake, the length of the kingdom, and their job was to keepe the night watches. They were employed by their home town, paid for in part by the corporation and otherwise by levies on the people or a range of private employments. As well as their nocturnal rounds, they would play processional and celebratory music at the command of the mayor and to entertain the people on high days and holidays. The night watch (celebrated in the title of an almain by Anthony Holborne, 1599), which would certainly offend the twentieth century citizen, was most important, and civic records, where they have survived, show that their watch duty was a fundamental function of the waits who perambulated the streets in the early morning. One wonders what the Westminster waits were doing when the great fire broke out in London and if, as would have been their responsibility, they raised the alarm, albeit too late?

Before the 15th century, when waits started to become established as proper musicians, all European civic centres employed watchmen (vigiles, wächter, vechtere) who carried some sort of bell, horn or trumpet to sound the alarm. As law enforcement improved and specialist officers took over this essential duty, the waits were able to evolve aspart-time musicians, and their musical role continued to expand until they became, in the words of Ned Ward “…the topping tooters of the town” (The London Spy, 1709). This important transition can be traced as the profession of the payee evolves from watchman to wait in the city chamberlains’ account books of e.g.

Beverley in north Yorkshire: Spiculatoribus (watchmen, 1405-53) – Histrionibus villae (town entertainers, 1460-1502) – the Wayts (1545 et seq.).

Cambridge:Ministrall’ vigilia (minstrel-watchmen, 1365) – Histrionibus ville (town entertainers, 1388-1514) – Ministrall’ ville (town minstrels, 1396-1486) – Fistulatoribus ville (town pipers, 1403-1425) – the Waites (1516 et seq.).

Sixteenth and seventeenth century ordinances setting out the waits’ duties instructed them to begin their rounds at three or four o’clock in the morning. Besides keeping an eye open for danger, they would notify sleepers of the hour, the weather and, in maritime centres such as Sandwich, the state of the tide as well. As they moved from station to station in the town, they would play music, for they were also the town’s official band, and to those in their beds all of this noise provided a sense of security rather than annoyance. If they were lucky, the waits may have gained extra income by being hired to play a huntsup for some more wealthy patron who required an early morning musical alarm call, which was very popular, especially if played sweetly.

The publick waites who liveryes do own,
And badges of a City, or some Town,
Who are retain’d in constant Yearly pay,
Do at their solemn publick meetings play.
And up and down the Streets, and Town in cold
Dark nights, when th’ Instruments they can scarce hold
They play about, and tell what hour it is,
Andweather too, this Course they do not miss,
Most part of Winter, in the Nights; and when
Some generous Persons come to Town, these Men
As soon as they’re Inform’d, do then repair
Unto their Lodgings, play them some fine Ayre
Or brisk new tune such as themselves think fit,
And which they hope, with th’ Gallants fancies hit,
They cry God Bless you Sirs; again then play,
Expecting Money, e’er they go away.

Anon. c. 1680

However, even when they became full-time musicians, their old watches were maintained as a tradition, a ceremony, especially during the Christmas period. Indeed, it was thisceremonial which survived after their demise in the early nineteenth century (in England, by abolition in the Municipal Corporations Reform Act of 1836), for the people missedtheir seasonal night music and formed themselves into small groups of singers and instrumentalists, the Christmas Waits, a tradition which survived until the 1940s. Theywere much loved by the wits who contributed to Punch and other Victorian magazines at Christmas, and who exploited every opportunity for punning presented by the word ‘wait’for satirical effect: “Christmas Waits – Mr Disraeli waiting for something to turn up. The railway shareholders waiting for a dividend” etc.(Punch, 1849). Remnants of the character of the original waits and later musical groups even survive today in familiar Christmas card illustrations of carol singers grouped in a pool of lantern light in the snow. These cards conflate images of the old city waits, their revivalist mimics and pure romantic fiction.

References to waits’ payments, livery provision, employment details and occasional misdemeanour occur throughout all extant civic records from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century. They were council employees of importance, considered worthy of the right to wear a large, ornate silver-gilt badge suspended from an intricately decorated chain, often inferior only to that worn by the Mayor. They attended all ceremonial and domestic civic occasions, always led grand processions and were ordered to play from lofty towers or scaffolds built specially to enable their music to be heard by visiting Royalty.

The colourful, distinguished uniforms and lively music of the waits and their continental equivalents were ubiquitous. When it was dark, their rounds would have been a familiarfeature from the Medieval period until well into the nineteenth century – everywhere!

Today we do not consider the waits’ music to have been high art and, indeed, that was to be found elsewhere, in court or church until the advent of the concert as we understand it in the late seventeenth century. The quality of their playing would have been variable, from just passable to the high quality ascribed by Will Kemp to the waits of Norwich after he had jigged there from London in 1599. Eventually, more lofty musical forms ousted the waits from their position as premier entertainers, but then a certain amount of ‘upward mobility’ became possible. William Tireman, cordwainer and wait of York, married a Miss Browne of Doncaster (with a generous dowry of £20,000) and became an eminent Cambridge organist. William Gibbons, Cambridge wait around 1570, would have been proud of his son Orlando who, frankly, outstripped him as a musician, and, of course, the Bach boys, descendants of Johann Ambrosius, one of the stadtpfeiffer of Eisenach in Saxony, seem to have done reasonably well in the music business.

A group of twentieth century musicians in the city of York have taken on the challenge of recreating one of the old civic bands as it might have been in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Learning to play the instruments of the waits was only the start of a singular project to reconstruct the shawm band and use it under realistic conditions. The York Waits have dredged their very rich local archives to provide themselves with an intimate understanding of the waits’ activities, and they have developed their unique playing and performance technique instinctively over the past twenty years by regularly playing shawms and saggbuts, cornetts and curtal in the situations in which the old waits would have found themselves. They have doggedly refused to toe the respectable, conventional performance line, always appearing in what some would consider to be fancy dress and developing playing techniques which might offend the more traditional musician, but for which there is sufficient iconographical evidence (and a couple of decades of practical experience has helped a lot).

For realistic impact in the open, waits have to play at maximum volume. With the shawm, characteristic instrument of the waits until the 1590s, that means first finding the best instrument for the purpose. The York Waits have bought and discarded countless instruments in their search for the right sound[1].They must also be prepared to disregard much of what their clarinet, bassoon, and trombone teachers generously imparted to them. The days when early music was acceptable when played out of tune are long gone, so alternative playing techniques have had to be devised and mastered. Waits must be prepared to blow mightily on a hard, coarse reed, resisting the temptation to play it with a modern oboe embouchure, puffing the cheeks Dizzie Gillespie style with the face pressed up against the fliew (pirouette) with lips off the reed. The reed is then free to rattle, but not entirely, for the lips are kept close enough to the reed that the player may squeeze gently for critical tuning, to help an upper note to speak at the right octave or to permit a degree of expressiveness if appropriate. Of course, sweet tone largely goes out of the window, but al fresco waits don’t have much need for sweet tone, it being more appropriate to establish their presence by making plenty of dramatic noise with their music. Some upper register notes have to be sacrificed, and intonation has to be adjusted by breath control and unconventional cross-fingerings, which are discovered by trial and error and rapidly learned, but which change disconcertingly when a new reed is brought into service. This is how to get the strident sound required out of doors where the waits played routinely. For the full gamut of shawm technique you are recommended to observe Ian Harrison of Les Haulz et Les Bas in action. If shawms played with exquisite intonation, tone, and expressiveness are your preference, the American band Piffaro will suit admirably. For sheer volume, not without painstaking attention to tuning, phrasing, ensemble and performance, The York Waits are the men to watch, or rather, hear.

Thanks mainly to oral transmission of music, the original waits’ repertoire was rarely written down. However, it is possible to determine what they might have played byinference, for there are some fragments of description to provide clues, and some late fifteenth century liederbuch collections of chansons and chorales written without words, apparently for instrumental performance by those most likely to have used such material, the town bands. Fortunately there are also some more readily identifiable sources of waits’music such as the manuscripts of the Hessen brothers (1555), stadtpfeiffer of Breslau who must have been six in number because they added fifth and sixth parts to more conventional four-part arrangements, most convenient for today’s six-man York Waits. What waits did to adapt vocal music for instrumental ensemble is evident in a collection published by Tielman Susato. Some of the pieces in his Dancerye of 1551 are reworkings of earlier compositions, for example chansons published in Paris, 1525-50. Susato played ‘trumpet’ (probably saggbut) with the Antwerp town band in the 1540s, before moving into publishing. He and his stadspijper colleagues may well have played some of the material included in the Dancerye.

The practice of playing in costume is often scorned by early musicians and concert organisers. What is wrong with dressing in the style of the period of your music and its performers? Since such efforts are made to perfect authentic (and I shall use that worn-out word only once) performance, why not take it a step further in appearance? Perhaps if we call it ‘historical clothing’ it sounds more respectable in a world in which, unfortunately, awful early costume is commonplace: cardboard armour and sequined mail-coat at dinner; sack-cloth and roman sandals; tabard with a strange colourful, elasticated (but easy to make) bag on the head; chiffon frock and a cornflake packet hennin or the pitiful mob cap…….muddled medieval influenced by the Hollywood school of costume design. So many people spend so much effort and money earnestly creating ill-conceived medieval costume and getting the idea a bad press. If clothes are intelligently constructed on correct historical principles, remembering that not everyone in ancient times was a king, queen or noble, then surely period costume is at least as appropriate in concert as the apparel of the musician who stands before an audience wearing evening dress with incongruous nakers strapped round his/her waist. Waits wore the clothes of ordinary men of their time and were rendered recognisable and smart by the liveries provided by their employers, their civic uniform of coat, badge and silver chain of office. When The York Waits perform, they rarely do so in mufti,feeling uncomfortable and out of place when dressed other than in the manner of their predecessors, and audiences have come to expect and respect this.

As the ultimate component of their quest for realism as waits, perhaps The York Waits should in future tackle publicity by goeing abrode uerye earlye in the morning for the delite of the citizens and to proclaim, with Ioyfull uoyces and ther loude Instrementes, the cominge of a concert in the ƒayd Towne.

Hark, are the waites abroad? Hush, for ‘tis such swete musick.

Originally published as “Why are they waiting” in EARLY MUSIC TODAY, Dec 1999/Jan 2000.

The author wishes he’d never used it as his working title!

Reproduced with permission of Rhinegold Publishing, 241 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8EH.


[1] and now they play: Shawms (G & D): Robert Cronin;
Saggbuts (A & Bb): Frank Tomes;
Cornetts: Christopher Monk Workshop;
Curtals, Crumhorns: Eric Moulder;
Recorders: Carl Hanson;
Flutes: Friedrich von Heune, Barbara Stanley;
Bagpipes: Jon Swayne, Julian Goodacre;
Hurdy-gurdies: J-C Boudet, Christopher Eaton.