One of the things I like about old music is that it seems (I may be just imagining it, but then maybe not) to give a glimpse into worlds gone by. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy Sweelinck’s music, especially played on the sorts of instruments it would have been played on back in the day, e.g. the virginals or a chest organ. Ditto Buxtehude. Music has always had the power to move people powerfully and for reasons that the hearer doesn’t even necessarily understand. It just soaks in and makes us want to do. Even music without words will do the trick.
We can read the books, the pamphlets, the sermons that were written in any particular period to see what got folks all in a twitter back then. But those are all more-or-less intentionally didactic exercises, thought out, tried out, very frequently written for a specific occasion or in address to a specific audience. And of course in a world in which huge chunks of the people were illiterate or nearly so, even of the middling orders, the written word as a statistically valid sample (to use a metaphor a bit out of place) has to be questioned. So I humbly submit that if we want to place our hands as closely as possible — if unavoidably imperfectly, since we hear with different ears than they would, just as we read with different eyes — we need to listen to their music. To borrow a phrase someone once used about Bach, “we must follow him to the organ.”
And so, from way back in the day when famous people had songs, marches, quick-steps, dances, etc. written in their honor, we reach out to touch the Jenny Lind Polka, written to honor the Swedish Nightingale, born on this day in 1820:
Once upon a time I had a cassette recording including this tune, done on mountain dulcimer, which really works excellently. The mountain dulcimer is by the way one of the better-kept secrets of American music, I suggest. You ought to hear “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” on it; I bet Luther himself would observe, “Ja, das ist das echte Zeug!”