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Alfonso Ferrabosco musician at the court of Elizabeth I 1562-1578


Alfonso Ferrabosco (baptized 18 January 1543 – 12 August 1588) was an Italian composer. While mostly famous as the solitary Italian madrigalist working in England, and the one mainly responsible for the growth of the madrigal there, he also composed much sacred music. He also may have been a spy for Elizabeth I while he was in Italy.

Alfonso was the eldest son of Domenico Ferrabosco, and a member of an aristocratic Bolognese family which had many musicians among its members. Alfonso was born in Bologna. Little is known about his early life, but he is known to have spent part of it in Rome and part in Lorraine in the service of Charles of Guise. In 1562, probably with his uncle, he came to England for the first time, where he found employment with Elizabeth I. Throughout his life he made periodic trips to Italy, not without controversy, for evidently neither the Pope nor the Inquisition fully approved of his spending time in England, which was in the late 16th century actively at war with Roman Catholic countries. While in England, he lost his Italian inheritance, and while away in Italy he was charged with certain crimes in England (including robbing and killing another foreigner).
Ferrabosca was certainly unusually well-paid for a musician at the court of Elizabeth. Although Elizabeth held his two children as hostage for his return, he never saw England again.
While he was successful in clearing his name, he left England in 1578 and never returned; he died in Bologna.

There is still some doubt whether Ferrabosca did act as one of Elazabeth’s agents. Nonetheless, he would have been an ideal candidate given his contacts abroad and the number of times he travelled between England and the Continent. However, if he did bend his allegiances to accommodate the needs of one of England’s most successful monarchs, then perhaps he may be excused, for the pressures to comply must have been considerable. Besides the promise of financial reward, the absence of modern communications meant that itinerants, such as playwrights, players and musicians, were obvious targets for a monarch whose survival depended on keeping abreast of developments abroad.


Paula Bär-Giese Hans Meijer