Emilia Bassano Lanyer was a member of the Venetian Bassano family of Court musicians and instrument makers. They came to Venice from the small Italian town of Bassano de Grappa. If they were secret Jews, they may have migrated from Spain or Portugal around 1492, when Queen Isabella decreed that all Jews must leave Spain. The Bassanos were invited by King Henry VIII to come from Venice to London to be Court musicians. Emilia’s father Baptista was the youngest of six Bassano brothers who moved to England (An older brother stayed in Italy). They lived at first in the Charterhouse in London (it still stands off Aldersgate Street north of the Barbican). The Charterhouse was emptied of its monks when Henry VIII took over the monasteries. Emilia’s mother was Margaret Johnson, possibly of the same family as the famous Robert Johnson who composed some of the songs in Shakespeare’s plays.
Emilia would have been surrounded by music from birth. She would have learned the lute, as many gentlewomen and ladies did, and probably also the recorder, since her family was known for playing in the Court recorder consort (a consort is a small band made up of the same kind of instruments) and for making recorders and other wind instruments. In Dark Lady: A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer, Emilia plays the lute with her cousins, Alfonso and Roberto, at a festive evening at Gray’s Inn. When she is invited to the London house of Lord Hunsdon, whose mistress she becomes, she plays her lute for him. When she goes to Court with Hunsdon, she accompanies some of the ladies on the lute as they sing a cheerful song called “Give Me My Yellow Hose Again.”
When Emilia visits Place House, the country estate of the young, flirtatious Earl of Southampton, and has a disastrous meeting with her lover Will Shakespeare, she sings a song called, “Now, O Now I Needs Must Part.” The song expresses her feelings toward Will and also marks a triumph for her, since her older cousin Augustine, head of the Bassano family, once told her that she could not play with the Consort since she was female. Now he has to conduct the prestigious Bassano Consort as they accompany her.
Emilia often plays her clavier at home, and after a visit by an unwelcome guest, she vents her feelings by pounding the keyboard in a rousing Spanish dance. And at her final meeting with Will, she joins him in singing a few lines from “The Wind and the Rain,” a song from one of his plays, Twelfth Night.
Below are some of the songs that Emilia performs in Dark Lady:
“Now, O Now I Needs Must Part,” music (and words?) by John Dowland
“Give Me My Yellow Hose Again,” traditional English melody (same as “Bonny Peggy Ramsey”)
“Mignonne, allon voir si la rose,” words by Pierre de Ronsard, melody anonymous
“Can She Excuse My Wrongs?” music by John Dowland, words attributed to Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex
“j’ai vu la loup,” music and words traditional French
“The Wind and the Rain,” from Twelfth Night, words by William Shakespeare, music anonymous