One Man’s Private Passion Goes Public – 300 Years Later
Published: 13 December, 2014

– The Crown Jewels of English Lute Music now available free online in Matthew Holmes’ hand-written manuscripts –

His name was Matthew Holmes. During the day he led church choirs and encouraged worship in Christ Church, Oxford and Westminster Abbey, London. When his work was done he would burn the midnight oil (literally) and copy out painstakingly lute pieces by all the finest composers of the time. Between 1580 until his death in 1621 he wrote out more than 650 pieces. That is more than one piece every month for 40 years. To do so, he would have had to borrow the original manuscripts or publications.

Matthew Holmes was not a professional player. He was a fine singer employed by the Church. His massive collection of pieces was most likely made for his own pleasure and satisfaction. Or was it? Maybe he understood the enormous artistic value of these Elizabethan composers and wished to collect them together in one volume, just as we might create a family scrapbook to savour and share precious moments.

In a press release and internet mailing Cambridge University Library has announced this week that it “is launching a new Music Collection with the online release of the ‘crown jewels’ of English lute music. Dating from the late 16th and early 17th century, the manuscripts contain handwritten copies of scores by John Dowland, Francis Cutting and dozens of other early modern composers.” It has done so in conjunction with The Lute Society which has have for many years provided generous support of a very high calibre to students, amateurs and professionals.

Glancing quickly through the index and pages of the Matthew Holmes Lute Books I opened up a pdf called “Exercise” by Anonymous. There, jumping out of the tablature, was a full-blown tremolo study. Nothing could have brought this collection more to life than to imagine a dedicated amateur player such as Matthew Holmes trying to get a good tremolo on the lute – in about 1590. Rien ne change… Apart from that you will find some of Dowland’s masterly works, and music by John Johnson, Francis Cutting, Anthony Holborne, Daniel Bacheler, and Robert Johnson. Also included is consort music, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth herself. There are dedications to Sr Walter Raleigh and William Kemp, the most famous clown of his day and associate of Shakespeare himself. The history of that time is etched on every page.

All this is thanks to the work of Cambridge University Library who have digitalised every page. At the press of a key you can download each and every one of them. As John Robinson of the Lute Society says: “The collection is an invaluable legacy for professional musicians and musicologists as well as amateur enthusiasts. Digitisation means that the original sources of lute music can be viewed, studied and played.”

Here is digital technology at its best. All you need is an internet connection and you are face to face with some of the greatest music for plucked instruments ever composed.

So, thank you, Cambridge University Library and thank you, Thomas Holmes. I don’t think Thomas would have ever imagined his private passion for lute music, as contained in his bound volumes, would one day become instantly accessible viewing to the entire world.


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