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The Keyboard Recital in Oriental Diplomacy, 1520–1620

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Ian Woodfield*
The Queen's University, Belfast


The giving of gifts or ‘bribes’ in return for official favours was an immutable fact of life in oriental society that Europeans who travelled to the East in the service of religious or commercial interests had no choice but to accept. Permission to open a trading station or a mission would rarely be granted unless the request were accompanied by a present of some substance. The initial gift, moreover, would inevitably inspire many demands for similar treatment by subordinate officials in whose hands lay considerable power to disrupt the ordered patterns of daily life. The choice of suitable objects for presentation was thus an abiding concern of every European organization with interests in the East. There was general agreement that cheap trinkets which might be used to good effect to buy off an African chief would be regarded as an insult in any of the great oriental courts. To appear before the Sultan or the Great Mughal with a feeble or even a mildly inadequate offering was to put at risk the very interests in which the gifts were given. Failure to please could be doubly damaging if a rival European organization were able to make good the disappointment. A balance had therefore to be struck between the need for goods that displayed the best aspects of European artistry, craftsmanship and mechanical ingenuity and the need to keep costs to a reasonable level. The musical gift which most closely matched these requirements was a keyboard instrument of some kind: a harpsichord, for instance, could be painted attractively and displayed as an objet d'art; with its method of sound reproduction, it could also be presented as a mechanical device; it was certain to be regarded as a novelty; and, most important of all, the costs of its manufacture and transportation and the wages of the single musician hired to accompany it would not be prohibitive. For all these reasons, organs, harpsichords and virginals occupy a very significant place in the history of Renaissance oriental diplomacy, especially during the period from c. 1575 to c. 1625 when the old Portuguese empire began its decline in the face of fierce competition from the commercial interests of the Dutch and English nations.

Research Article
Copyright © 1990 Royal Musical Association

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This article is part of a larger study entitled ‘English Musicians in the Age of Exploration’, in preparation.Google Scholar

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