Many of John Skelton’s have a link to music, sacred as well as secular. Some poems have been composed to fit actual music, whereas other poems refer to musical instruments and terms. Greg Walker states that:
It has been suggested that Skelton must have been an active participant in the production of Court entertainment during his period as tutor to Prince Henry. There is, however, little evidence to support such an assertion. (Walker 41)
Although it is disputed to what degree Skelton was involved in court entertainment, it has been confirmed that William Cornysh – an English composer and contemporary of Skelton – composed music for at least one of Skelton’s ballads to go with the poet’s text (Walker 41). This refers to one of Skelton’s earlier poems Manerly Margery Mylk and Ale, the text of which can be found in the Fayrfax Book (1505), a manuscript miscellany containing many other musical works. The Book is named after Robert Fayrfax, a doctor of music from Cambridge whose music can also be found in the Fayrfax Book (Carpenter, “Skelton and Music”, 283). Other poems that are probably composed by Skelton can also be found in this Book.
Nonetheless, despite the uncertainty of Skelton’s presence in court entertainment, his works show that he was familiar with musical instruments and terms. Nan Cooke Carpenter indicates that throughout his works, Skelton mentions the names of two dozen musical instruments (“Skelton and Music”, 162). There are, for instance, trumpets in Garlande of Laurell. Moreover, the metre of Skeltonics shows a resemblance to musical rhythm. The sacred musical references are probably most clear in the poem Phyllyp Sparowe which is submerged in indications to Requiem Mass or the Mass of the Death. Skelton uses many Latin antiphons of the Vespers from the Vulgate psalms and other psalms. The influence of secular music seems to be greatest in Contra Alium Cantitatem in which the protagonist is a musician. Skelton attacks this musician by mocking his ability to play musical instruments as is well put in the Latin opening of the second part. In translation it reads “[a] sarcastic poem against another singer and doltish musician who criticized the muse-like Skelton” (Scattergood 392). Moreover, the poem Dyvers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous also refers to music since the term “balettys” represents “a broad range of musical and poetic concepts” (Renchler 145).
Even though Skelton’s work is filled with musical references, it is unknown whether the poet was able to read or compose music. If Skelton truly had degrees from both Cambridge and Oxford universities, it might be possible that he enjoyed musical lessons. From the fifteenth century, both universities had separated their musical arts faculties from the other liberal arts faculties. The education of music was, therefore, more abundant than before and one could even receive a degree in musical arts (Carpenter, “Skelton and Music”, 282).
Skelton’s connection with music was strengthened, when in 1936 the renowned composer Ralph Vaughan Williams decided to use the words of several of Skelton’s work in his Five Tudor Portraits. Elgar had recommended Vaughan williams that “the metre of Skelton was often pure jazz”, and particularly suitable for a jazz-influenced classical composition. The Tudor Portraits are all concerned with a different poem by Skelton, as for instance Elynour Rummynge. The general “gem” of the five pieces is the fourth movement with the name Jane Scroop in which the text of Phyllyp Sparowe is used (Kennedy 254). According to Michael Kennedy, these five performances can be regarded as one of Vaughan Williams’s “finest achievements” (269) and “his happiest, raciest, most poetical choral work” (Kennedy 253).
Even though the five movements were regarded as extraordinary, the Tudor Portraits were not received with much enthusiasm. The audience considered the early-modern texts of Skelton a “drawback” since the “archaic humour [was] perhaps a special taste, too rarefied for all its earthiness” (Kennedy 269). As a result, Vaughan Williams’ movements are rarely performed nowadays.