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Thomas Mace was probably born in York in 1612 or 1613. He seems to have come from a family of church musicians and clergymen. His brother Henry was sub-chanter in the choir at York Minster, and vicar of St Mary Bishophill in York, from 1638 to 1670. His nephew Phineas graduated from St Johns College Cambridge in 1661, and was given parishes in NE Derbyshire. Both were subscribers to Thomas’s book “Musick's Monument” in 1676. On 25 April 1656 Thomas married Mary Blackley at St Benedict's Church, Cambridge. There are some touching stories about his family life in his writings, including his association of his wife with one of his lute pieces, and how his youngest son John learned to play the lute almost solely by reading the manuscript of Musick's Monument.
On August 10th 1635 Thomas was appointed clerk (that is, a singing man) at Trinity College, Cambridge. We do not know why he went to Cambridge; perhaps simply the opportunity for work. He remained there for the rest of his life, though his increasing deafness may have meant that he engaged a deputy to take his place in the choir. He also taught the lute and the viol, and he must have organised musical events. From his writings he seems to have been most enthusiastic about the practice of music, and about its spiritual and therapeutic effects. He also published books suggesting improvements to the roads, “for a Public Good” in 1675, and about health, “Riddles, Mervels and Rarities, or, A New Way of Health from an Old Man’s Experience” in 1698.
He was, perhaps like many of us, a curious mixture of forward and backward looking. In music he enjoyed the harmonical music in church, and grave music at home; he preferred viols to “Squaling-Scoulding Fiddles”. But he appealed to players to consider the “humour”, that is the emotional content of the music and not just the technicalities of its composition. He also made the appeal to consider the listeners as well as the performers, considering the circumstances in which the players could perform at their best, and the effect that the music could have on the listener. He turned his attention towards suitable acoustics for musical performances, implying an awareness of the growing importance of public concerts.
He must have been an unusual man. In the only portrait of him, he has a hang-dog expression, but for somebody in his position, a professional musician and not a gentleman, he achieved remarkable things. Even to have a portrait was unusual. He bought a complete set of instruments, including two of his table organs (by his own account), which must always have been expensive. He published three books, including his Musick's Monument in 1676. It was an unusually large and complicated book, full of musical examples, and must have been expensive to print. He had a large list of subscribers, but even so, he had not sold all the copies by the end of his life. The subscriber list includes clergy, academics and gentlemen. The academics include the group known as the Cambridge Platonists, Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, John Worthington (who Mace taught singing and viol), and other, as well as the musical Humphrey Babington, and the mathematicians Isaac Barrow and Isaac Newton, at Trinity.
Newton had little musical inclination or ability, but he saw music’s number as the most obvious way in which mathematics underpinned the cosmos (as revealed to Newton). We can see some of Mace’s more abstract writing about music as a reflection of his conversation with Newton and the other academics with whom he was acquainted. We know he talked to Newton, because he recommended Mace’s ear-trumpets to an ancient gentleman at the Royal Society (his Oto-cousticon). His interest in acoustics was a reflection of the interests of the natural philosophers of his day.
Mace visited London in November 1675 to arrange for the publication of “Musick's Monument, or, A remembrancer of the best practical musick, both divine, and civil, that has ever been known, to have been in the world”, published by Thomas Ratcliffe and Nathaniel Thompson at 12 shillings a copy. The book was written between 1671 and 1676, and was divided into three parts. The first dealt with psalm singing in parish churches, “also shewing, How Cathedral Musick, may be much Improved and Refined”, including a celebrated passage describing the singing of a psalm in a crowded York Minster during the siege of 1644, with cannonballs ricocheting round the church. The second describes his passion for the lute and its music, as he felt its popularity ebbing away. The third is about “the Generous Viol, In its Rightest Use … and Musick in General”, including the description of his music room, thoughts about acoustics, and the public presentation of music.
The book is to some extent a polemic, but most attractive in its appeal, not least because of Mace’s highly original use of language. In 1776 it engaged the attention of both the early historians of music: Sir John Hawkins, who devoted a few pages to a summary of the book, and Charles Burney, who wondered how one could fail to “extract pleasure from the sincere and undissembled happiness of an author, who, with exalted notions of his subject and abilities, discloses to his reader every inward working of self-approbation in as undisguised a manner, as if he were communing with himself in all the plenitude of mental comfort and privacy”.
It may well be that Mace’s interest in acoustics was partly caused by his increasing deafness, which plagued the last thirty or forty years of a long life. In an attempt to combat his affliction he invented the “Dyphone: or Double Lute, The Lute of Fifty Strings”, which is described in Musick's Monument. In 1690 (at the age of 77) he went to London to sell “great store” of his musical books and instruments, including a “late invented organ which (for private use) excels all other fashioned organs whatever; and for which, substantial-artificial reasons will be given; and (for its beauty) it may become a nobleman’s dining-room”, “a pair of fair, large-siz’d, consort-viols, chiefly fitted and suited for That, or consort use”, and “a Pedal Harpsicon, (the absolute best sort of consort harpsicons that has been invented); there being in it more than 20 varieties, most of them to come in with the foot of the player, without the least hindrance of play (exceedingly pleasant)”. These would have been the instruments to fit out the “Musick Room”, which sadly for Mace, was not built in his lifetime.
One hopes that Mace continued to get some pleasure from his passion for music. He lived another 16 years. We do not know precisely when this wonderful man died, but the records of Trinity College, Cambridge, show that on 17 April 1706 a singing man’s place in the chapel had been made vacant, and there are no further references to him after this date.
Dominic Gwynn, June 3rd 2020
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