The Alehouse Sessions – the Long Story

The last couple of years, I have been very interested in a certain period of time in London. A time where professional musicians were roaming the streets without a venue to play their music - because all theatres were closed and making money on performing music was prohibited. I picture these grey-cloaked figures; how they’re hiding their instruments to protect them from the rain and wind - but also to avoid confrontations with the authorities - and then moving into the town’s taverns or alehouses to meet friends, drink and most of all to play and sing music. These gatherings of professional musicians became so popular that some of these places turned into so-called musick-houses; and thus became the first public concert-halls in the history of western music.

Famous composers like Henry Purcell part-took in these sessions, and composed lots of music for the occasions.

It must have been an incredible atmosphere in these places – overflowing with music, alcohol, sex, gossip, fights, fumes, shouting, singing, laughing, dancing… not unlike our live versions of the Alehouse Sessions.

The Historical Perspective

The pub has since the earliest of times been the English people’s second home. The establishments can be divided into three categories: the inns, taverns and alehouses (later known as public houses). In these establishments one would meet to eat, drink, and sleep, but, especially after 1660, one would also hold political meetings, feasts, balls, concerts, gambling events, flower shows etc .. and of course, these houses were the main venues for the extreme consumption of alcohol in the 17th century¹. Samuel Pepys is also notoriously known for his fondness of alcohol. In his diaries, he’s listing all kinds of favourite drinks like ale, cider, beer, brandy, all sorts of wines and mixed drinks like posset, butter beer, hippocras etc².

By 1630 there were registered more than 30.000 alehouses, 2000 Inns and 400 taverns in England and Wales.

Before 1660, the most common music-making in the pubs would be predominated by drinking songs, bawdy catches and ballads, and simple instrumental music played by fiddlers and fifers.

Shakespeare refers to the poor level of catch singing in many of his plays, like in “Twelfth Night” where Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the clown Feste are singing the catch “Hold thy peace”, where, being disturbed from sleep by their “performance”, Malvolio exclaims:

“My masters, are you mad?… Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty, but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night? Do ye make an ale-house of my lady’s house, that ye squeak your cozier’s catches without any mitigation or remorse of voice?”

Civil war/Commonwealth

With the outbreak of the English Civil Wars in 1642, the Puritans had the Commonwealth parliament closing all theatres. The music masters of London’s churches and courts were scattered and left to fend for themselves.

Some went to the country-side serving as light entertainment for the aristocracy and tutoring their children, some joined the military³ and some church musicians stayed in London to become teachers.

Roger North, the late 17th century writer and lawyer wrote: “many chose rather to fiddle at home, rather to go and be knocked on the head abroad.”

But with the closing of all theatres, most of the musicians ended up living rootless lives that descended to little more than begging.

The Actor’s Remonstrance or Complaint printed in London 1643:

“Our Musicke that was held so delectable and precious, that they scorned to come to a Taverne under twentie shillings salary for two houres, now wander with their Instruments under their cloaks, I meane such as have any, into al houses of good fellowship, saluting every roome where there is company, with Will you have any musike Gentlemen?”

Music-making during the period of the Civil wars and Commonwealth was therefore largely divided between those who “chose to fiddle at home” (either in their own home or in the homes of the Gentlemen that could afford to employ them) and those professional musicians forced to make a living playing in taverns and alehouses.

With all the professional musicians singers and actors now entering the pubs and joining in with the locals in musical sessions, one saw a significant rise of the quality of music-making with the result being that these alehouse sessions grew in popularity across the classes. A new type of tavern emerged - the Musick House. One such venue was the Black Horse in Aldersgate Street, London, where prior to 1654 one Edmund Chilmead ran a Musick Meeting – it has since been suggested that it was these meetings at the Black Horse that were the earliest public concerts in Britain!

Oliver Cromwell

In fact, these musical gatherings became so popular, that Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, in 1657, sent out a new decree  “against vagrants and wandering idle dissolute persons…commonly called fiddlers or minstrels”, who were warned that if at any time they were “taken fiddeling, and making music, in any inn, alehouse or tavern.. or intreating any person to hear them play or make music in any of these places” they were to be adjudged “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars, and proceeded against and punished accordingly”.

This made it more difficult for musicians to bring their instruments4, but the demand for entertainment at the drinking houses was high, so instead people started performing vocal music like part-songs, catches and canons.


With the re-instatement of the monarchy and Charles II in 1660, everything changed for the musicians in London. Charles was a music-lover and re-opened theatres. He re-instated church musicians and wanted his own orchestra. But the King constantly had to deal with the never-ending fights between catholic and protestant, Whig and Tory, city and court – and also with the Parliament that kept a very close eye on the country’s economy – so he simply couldn’t afford to offer full-time employment for artists, musicians, dancers, actors etc.

Charles II had, like his mentor and financier Louis XIV, a regularly hired a group of musicians – the so-called 24 violins. But unlike Louis’, Charles’ musicians had to take extra jobs at the theatres and participate in the city’s public concerts in order for them to make a living. The English aristocracy hired musicians for special occasions and otherwise they bought subscriptions for operas and concert-series. Even the king also had a subscription, since he neither owned the theatres, the concert-halls or the orchestras that played.

However, even with the opening of theatres and building of new opera houses, the popularity of the alehouse sessions didn’t die out. In the 18th century it gradually became more common for promoters to advertise their tavern concerts in the press, and tickets were sold through subscriptions, in stores or at the door. The ticket sales were open for everybody - listening to concerts was not an activity reserved for the aristocracy alone.

Music became enormously popular in 17th- and 18th century London, yet there were no orchestras that offered steady jobs. This meant that London was bulging with freelance musicians. Musicians, that at one time are sitting amongst beer-glasses and a loud audience playing in one of the informal and highly popular concerts in one of the many Taverns and alehouses, and the next participating in one of the large charity concerts, before rushing off to join one of the opera performances at operas like the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. Between May and September, which was outside of the opera- and theatre season, one could find these musicians playing in one of the Pleasure Gardens - huge outdoor events with music.

So, to be a musician in London back then, meant to be part of an extremely varied form of employment with enough activity to work the whole year through. But, for most people, it also involved a lousy payment, resulting in having to play music around the clock in order to put food on the table. They had no security, and often they played for free with hopes that some rich gentleman would take pity on them and toss them some coins.

Not unlike the situation for many freelancers across Europe today.

What strikes me, is that despite the authorities attempts to censor, prohibit and control the music-making, the music and artists survived, prevailed, adapted and transformed.

Barokksolistene’s Alehouse Sessions

I launched the project in 2007, as a concert-form where the music found in the English public-houses during and after the Commonwealth was explored. It was an immediate success and has gained popularity with audiences and promoters within a wide field of music. Ever since 2007, the project has been in constant development.

Even if the music, the stories and the dances get their inspiration from historical events, the project has now developed into being the essence of what the Barokksolistene’s operation aims to be – a creative energy center, where powerful, virtuosic individuals meet to create something unique, time-less, actual and genre-breaking – something that resonates with a modern and diverse audience.

The alehouse sessions is flexible and can be presented in many different forms and settings. It can be an enlightenment project, a music-theatre, an improvised happening, a show or an educational event – I see it is an organic, living organism that never stands still.

Everyone that has been involved in the project throughout the years, has experienced musical and personal developments through the way we work and test ideas. We have initiated our own workshops where we gather in some remote place and work with improvisation, choir singing, rhythmical exercises, dancing and, most importantly, strengthening the friendship through cooking, drinking and gossiping.

I see the alehouse sessions more as a creative room that I keep refurbishing, rather than a fixed project or concept. It started as a fun, clever musical idea – fitting a festival with an English theme – but has now become something more profound; it’s all about the individuals that contribute on stage, with everyone being outstanding soloists and team-players, and how we have all invested ourselves in the project.

Bjarte Eike

Sources :

Robins, Brian, Catch and Glee Culture in eighteenth-century England , the Boydell Press, 2006
Smyth, Adam, A pleasing sinne. Drink and conviviality in 17th century England, D.S.Brewer, 2004
Clark, Peter, The English Alehouse: a social history 1200-1830, Longman, 1983

1 one place in Berkshire, England it has been recorded that between 1611 and 1618 an average of 6 to 8 pints of beer were consumed per person – every day

2 Pepys’ telling of his first meeting with orange juice is rather amusing: …and here, which I never did before, I drank a glass, of a pint I believe, at one draught, of the juice of Oranges of whose peel they make comfits; and they drink the juice as wine, with sugar, and it is a very fine drink; but it being new, I was doubtful whether it might not do me hurt..

3 like the composer William Lawes who was killed at Chester in 1645

4 hiding them under their cloaks