Thursday, November 1, 2012

17: Six composers, Taverner, Tallis, Marbeck, Byrd, Gibbons and Tomkins

Six English composers who shaped Anglican choral liturgy: top (from left): John Taverner, Thomas Tallis and John Marbeck; bottom (from left): William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Tomkins (Photomontage, Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In the century or two after the Anglican Reformation, Anglican theology was developed not only by academic theologians and bishops, but by poet-priests such as John Donne and George Herbert, by architects, and by composers.

Six composers in particular stand out in this period: John Taverner (ca 1490-1545), who is regarded as one of the most important English composers of his era; Thomas Tallis (ca 1505-1585), who is considered the father of English choral music; John Marbeck (ca 1510–ca 1585), who produced a standard setting of the Anglican liturgy; William Byrd (1539/1540-1623); Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), one of the most versatile English composers of his time; and Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), a prolific composer of verse anthems.

Tallis, Merbecke and Byrd are honoured, together with a feast day on 21 November in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church. All six have contributed immeasurably to the corpus of Anglican liturgical music.

1, John Taverner (ca 1490-1545)

John Taverner ... other composers modelled their work on his

John Taverner was born ca 1490, but we know little about his life before 1524. He appears to have come from south Lincolnshire, but there is no record of who his parents were. In one of his own letters, he says he is related to the Yerburghs, a well-to-do Lincolnshire family.

However, the earliest information is that in 1524 Taverner travelled from Tattershall in Lincolnshire, where he was a clerk fellow at the Collegiate Church, to Saint Botolph’s Church in nearby Boston as a guest singer. Two years later, in 1526, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey appointed him the first Organist and Master of the Choristers at Christ Church, Oxford. Wolsey had founded the college in 1525 and it was first known as Cardinal College. In 1528, Taverner was reprimanded for being involvement with Lutherans, but he escaped punishment for being “but a musician.”

Christ Church College, Oxford ... John Taverner was the first Organist and Master of the Choristers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Wolsey fell from favour in 1529, and in 1530 Taverner left Christ Church College. As far as we know, Taverner had no further musical appointments, nor can any of his known works be dated after that time.

He may have stopped composing, and some sources say that after leaving Oxford Taverner worked as an agent of Thomas Cromwell, assisting in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

He eventually returned to Lincolnshire, and lived in Boston, Lincolnshire, where he was a small but reasonably well-off landowner. He became an alderman of Boston in 1545, shortly before his death. He died on 18 October 1545 and is buried under the bell tower of Boston Parish Church. The modern century composer Sir John Tavener claims he is his direct descendant.

Most of Taverner’s music is vocal, and includes masses, Magnificats and motets. Most of his works were probably written in the 1520s.

Taverner’s best known mass is the ‘Western Wynde’ Mass, based on a popular song

Taverner’s best-known motet is Dum Transisset Sabbatum. His best known mass is based on a popular song, ‘The Western Wynde,’ This ‘Western Wynde’ Mass is unusual for the period because the theme tune appears in each of the four parts, except the alto, at different times.

Taverner’s Masses are designed so that each of the four sections – Gloria, Credo, Sanctus-Benedictus and Agnus Dei – are about the same length, often achieved by putting the same number of repetitions of the thematic material in each.

Several of his other Masses use the widespread cantus firmus technique, where a plainchant melody with long note values is placed in an interior part, often the tenor. Examples of cantus firmus Masses include Corona Spinea and Gloria Tibi Trinitas. Another technique of composition is seen in his Mater Christi Mass, which is based upon material taken from his motet of that name, and so is known as a “derived” or “parody” mass.

The Mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas is in six parts. The section at the words “in nomine...” in the Benedictus is in four parts, with the plainchant in the alto. This section of the Mass became popular as an instrumental work for viol consort. Other composers came to write instrumental works modelled on this, and the name In nomine was given to works of this type.

2, Thomas Tallis (ca 1505-1585)

Thomas Tallis is considered one of England’s greatest early composers

Thomas Tallis occupies a primary place in anthologies of English church music, and is considered one of England’s greatest early composers. He is honoured for his original voice in English musicianship, and is also remembered as the teacher of William Byrd.

Little is known about Tallis’s early life, but it seems he was born in the early 16th century, towards the close of the reign of Henry VII, probably ca 1505. We know little about his childhood, although some biographers say he was a child of the Chapel Royal at Saint James’s Palace.

His first known appointment to a musical position was in 1532 as the organist of Dover Priory, a Benedictine priory. He moved to London, probably in the autumn of 1538, to the Augustinian abbey of Holy Cross at Waltham. When Waltham Holy Cross was dissolved in 1540, Tallis acquired and preserved an important and influential musical treatise by Leonel Power.

His next post was at Canterbury Cathedral, and from there he was sent to become a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543. There he composed and performed for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I until he died in 1585.

Throughout his time as organist and composer to successive Tudor monarchs, Tallis avoided the religious controversies of the day, although, like Byrd, he remained an “unreformed Roman Catholic.” Tallis was capable of switching the style of his compositions to suit vastly different demands of the different monarchs. Among other important composers of the time, including Christopher Tye and Robert White, Tallis stood out for his versatility of style and his consistent handling of his material.

Tallis married his wife Joan around 1552, and later in life, they lived in Greenwich, possibly close to the royal palace.

Queen Mary granted Tallis a lease on a manor in Kent that provided a comfortable annual income. Later, in 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted to him and William Byrd a 21-year monopoly for polyphonic music and a patent to print and publish music, which was one of the first arrangements of that type in England.

This gave Tallis exclusive rights to print any music, in any language, and his monopoly included “set songe or songes in parts.” In addition, Tallis and Byrd were the only people allowed to use the paper used in printing music. They used their monopoly to produce Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, consisting of 34 Latin motets dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, with 17 motets each by Tallis and Byrd, one for each year of the her reign. But they were strictly forbidden to sell imported music, nor did they have the right to music type fonts, printing patents were not under their command, and they did not own a printing press.

Tallis died at home in Greenwich on 23 November 1585, and was buried in the chancel of Saint Alfege Church, Greenwich. His wife, Joan, outlived him by four years, and it appears they had no children. His body may have been discarded by labourers when the church was rebuilt being in 1712-1714. Nothing remains of his original memorial in the church.

Tallis may be best remembered for his motet Spem in alium.

The earliest surviving works by Tallis, Salve intemerata virgo, Ave rosa sine spinis and Ave Dei patris filia, are non-liturgical devotional antiphons to the Virgin Mary. After the Reformation, the writing of Tallis and his contemporaries became less florid. His Mass for four voices is marked with tendencies toward a syllabic and chordal style and a diminished use of melisma. Tallis provides a rhythmic variety and differentiation of moods depending on the meaning of his texts. Tallis helped found a relationship that was specific to combining words and music. He also wrote several Lutheran chorales.

With the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer and its new liturgy during the short reign of Edward VI, Tallis was one of the first church musicians to write anthems set to English words, although Latin continued to be used.

Following the accession of Mary I in 1553, the Roman rite was restored and styles of composition returned to the elaborate writing that prevailed earlier in the 16th century. Two of Tallis’s major works, Gaude glorioisa Dei Mater and the Christmas Mass Puer natus est nobis are believed to be from this period, although only Puer natus est nobis can be accurately dated to 1554. As was the practice at the time, these pieces were intended to exalt Queen Mary as well as to praise the Virgin Mary.

After Queen Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister in 1558, The Book of Common Prayer was restored and court composers resumed writing English anthems, and while the practice of setting Latin texts continued, liturgical polyphony was discouraged.

Tallis wrote nine psalm chant tunes for four voices for Archbishop Matthew Parker’s Psalter, published in 1567. One of the nine tunes, the Third Mode Melody inspired Ralph Vaughan Williams to compose his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in 1910.

Tallis’s better-known works from the Elizabethan years include his settings of the Lamentations (of Jeremiah) for the Holy Week services and the unique motet Spem in alium written for eight five-voice choirs. Tallis is mostly remembered for his role in composing office hymns and this motet, Spem in alium.

Toward the end of his life, Tallis resisted the musical development seen in his younger contemporaries such as Byrd, who embraced compositional complexity and adopted texts built by combining disparate biblical extracts. Tallis’s experiments during this time period were considered rather unusual. Tallis was content to draw his texts from the Liturgy and wrote for the worship services in the Chapel Royal.

3, John Marbeck (ca 1510- ca 1585)

John Marbeck produced a standard setting for the Anglican liturgy

The theological writer and musician John Marbeck, Merbeck or Merbecke produced a standard setting for the Anglican liturgy. He is also known today for his setting of the Mass, Missa per arma justitiae.

Marbeck was probably from Beverley, Yorkshire. He appears to have been a boy chorister at Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor, and was an organist there from about 1541. Two years later he was convicted with four others of heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake, but received a pardon owing to the intervention of the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner. However, an English concordance of the Bible Marbeck had been preparing was confiscated and destroyed. A later version of this work, the first of its kind in English, was published in 1550 with a dedication to Edward VI.

In 1550, Marbeck published his Booke of Common Praier Noted, intended to provide for musical uniformity in the use of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. In his 1550 book, Marbeck set the liturgy to semi-rhythmical melodies partly adapted from Gregorian chant, but it became largely obsolete with the publication of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer.

Marbeck also wrote several devotional and controversial works of a strongly Calvinistic character, and a number of his musical compositions are preserved in manuscripts in the British Library, and at Oxford and Cambridge.

He died ca 1585 while he was still the organist at Windsor.

Southwark Cathedral ... part of his heresy trial was heard here in 1543 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the 19th century, the Oxford Movement inspired renewed interest in liturgical music, and the Irish-born John Jebb brought attention to Marbeck’s Prayer Book settings in 1841. In 1843, William Dyce published plainsong music for all Anglican services, with almost all of Marbeck’s settings, adapted for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Later in the 19th century, many editions of Marbeck’s settings were published, especially for the Holy Communion, with arrangements by noted musicians including Sir John Stainer and Charles Villiers Stanford.

Marbeck’s Communion setting was very widely sung by choirs and congregations throughout the Anglican Communion until the 1662 Book of Common Prayer began to be replaced by modern liturgies in the late 20th century.

A choir for young men and women at Southwark Cathedral in London is named the Merbecke Choir in his honour because his part of his heresy trial had been heard in the church in 1543.

4, William Byrd (1539/1540-1623)

Wiliam Byrd ... the texts of the motets included by Byrd and Tallis in the 1575 Cantiones reflect High Anglican theology

William Byrd was a Renaissance composer who wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphone, keyboard and consort music.

Byrd was born in London around 1539 or 1540 into a family that moved from Ingatestone in Essex to London in the 15th century. In his will, dated 15 November 1622, he says he is “in the 80th year of my age,” he was born in 1542 or 1543. However, on 2 October 1598 he wrote that he is “58 yeares or ther abouts,” indicating he was born earlier, in 1539 or 1540.

His brothers, Symond and John Byrd, were choristers at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and Byrd may have been a chorister there under Simon Westcote, although it is also possible that he was a chorister with the Chapel Royal. According to Anthony Wood, Byrd was “bred up to musick under Tho. Tallis,” and a reference in the Cantiones sacrae published by Tallis and Byrd in 1575 confirms Byrd was a pupil of Tallis at the Chapel Royal.

One of Byrd’s earliest compositions was a setting for four male voices of the psalm In exitu Israel for the procession to the font in Easter week, written in collaboration with two Chapel Royal singers, John Sheppard and William Mundy. It was may have been composed near the end of the reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558), when the Sarum Rite was restored to use.

In 1563, Byrd was appointed organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, and he remained there until 1572. On 14 September 1568, he married Julian Birley; it appears to have been a happy marriage, and they had at least seven children.

However, his time at Lincoln was not without trouble. On 19 November 1569, the Dean and Chapter cited him for “certain matters alleged against him.” The allegations may have involved over-elaborate choral polyphony or organ playing that offended local Puritans. Byrd’s salary was suspended, and a second directive on 29 November gave detailed instructions on Byrd’s use of the organ in the liturgy.

In the 1560s, Byrd probably composed The Short Service during this time at Lincoln Cathedral. There he also composed his seven In Nomine settings for consort (two a4 and five a5), at least one of the consort fantasias (Neighbour F1 a6) and a number of important keyboard works, including the Ground in Gamut, the A minor fantasia and probably the first of Byrd’s great series of keyboard pavans and galliards.

Byrd began setting Latin liturgical texts as a teenager, and continued to do so at Lincoln. His De lamentation from this time continues the practice of setting groups of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah following the format of the Tenebrae lessons sung in Holy Week.

When he left Lincoln Cathedral, the Dean and Chapter continued to pay him a retainer to send his compositions back to the cathedral.

When the composer Robert Parsons drowned in the River Trent near Newark on 25 January 1572, Byrd was appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and from the outset he was named as “organist.”

At the Chapel Royal, Byrd found new opportunities to widen his scope as a composer and to make contacts at the Court of Queen Elizabeth. His output of church music is surprisingly small, but it stretches the limits of elaboration that were then regarded as acceptable.

In 1575, Byrd and Tallis received a patent for printing music and ruled music paper for 21 years. Byrd’s contribution to their Cantiones is highly varied. His work at this time shows the influence of the motets of Alfonso Ferrabosco I (1543–1588) from Bologna who was working in the Tudor court between 1562 and 1578. The Cantiones were a financial failure, and Byrd and Tallis petitioned Queen Elizabeth for financial help. They were later granted 21-year leases on lands and estates in East Anglia and the West Country.

From the early 1570s, Byrd was increasingly involved with Roman Catholicism, which became a major factor in his personal and creative life, and his known Roman Catholic associates included Thomas Paget, 3rd Lord Paget. Byrd’s wife Julian was first cited for recusancy at Harlington, in Middlesex, in 1577 and Byrd appears in the recusancy lists from 1584.

In 1583, he found himself in trouble when Thomas Paget became a suspect in the Throckmorton Plot, and for sending money to Roman Catholics abroad. Byrd’s membership of the Chapel Royal was suspended, his movements were restricted, and his house was searched. In 1586 he attended a gathering at a country house in the company of Father Henry Garnett, who was later executed for his role in the Gunpowder Plot, and the Roman Catholic poet Robert Southwell.

Byrd’s commitment to the Catholic cause was expressed in his motets, of which he composed about 50 between 1575 and 1591. While the texts of the motets included by Byrd and Tallis in the 1575 Cantiones reflect High Anglican theology, there was a profound change of direction in the texts to which Byrd set his motets in the 1580s, such as his a persistent emphasis on the persecution of the chosen people (Domine praestolamur a5), the Babylonian or Egyptian captivity (Domine tu iurasti) and the long-awaited coming of deliverance (Laetentur caeli, Circumspice Jerusalem). It appears Byrd was reinterpreting biblical and liturgical and writing laments and petitions on behalf of Roman Catholics, for whom Byrd was a kind of “house” composer.

Some texts could be interpreted as warnings against spies (Vigilate, nescitis enim) or lying tongues (Quis est homo) or marking the memory of martyred priests (O quam gloriosum). His setting of the first four verses of Psalm 78 (Deus venerunt gentes) probably refers to the execution of the Jesuit Edmund Campion in 1581.

Byrd’s Quomodo cantabimus is the result of a motet exchange with Philippe de Monte, director of music in Prague for the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II. In 1583, de Monte sent Byrd his setting of verses 1-4 of Psalm 136 (Super flumina Babylonis), including the pointed question, “How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?” Byrd replied the following year with a setting of the defiant continuation, set, like de Monte’s piece, in eight parts and incorporating a three-part canon by inversion.

Thirty-seven of Byrd’s motets were published in two sets of Cantiones sacrae in 1589 and 1591. These collections were probably part of Byrd’s efforts to re-establish himself in court circles after the reverses of the 1580s.

In 1588 and 1589, Byrd also published two collections of English songs. The first, Psalms, Sonnets and Songs of Sadness and Pietie (1588), consists mainly of adapted consort songs.

The set reflects Byrd’s involvement with the literary circle surrounding Sir Philip Sidney, whose influence at court was at its height in the early 1580s. Sidney died at the Battle of Zutphen in 1586. But the most popular item in the set was the Lullaby (Lullay lullaby). In 1602 Byrd's patron Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester, discussing court fashions in music, predicted that “in winter lullaby, an owld song of Mr Birde, wylbee more in request as I thinke.”

The period up to 1591 saw important additions to Byrd’s output of consort music, some of which has probably been lost.

Byrd’s career entered a new phase around 1594. He was now in his early 50s, and he moved with his family from Harlington to Stondon Massey, a small village near Chipping Ongar in Essex. His ownership of Stondon Place, where he lived for the rest of his life, was bitterly contested by Joanna Shelley in a protracted legal dispute.

The move brought Byrd closer to his patron, Sir John Petre, a wealthy landowner and discreet Roman Catholic who owned two local manor houses, Ingatestone Hall and Thorndon Hall. Petre hosted clandestine Masses with music provided by his servants.

Byrd’s friendship with the Petre family dated from at least 1581, and he spent two weeks at the Petre household at Christmas in 1589. But Byrd’s continuing Catholic adherence of Byrd brought more difficulties, and he was fined regularly in the local courts for his recusancy.

Byrd now embarked on a programme to provide a cycle of liturgical music covering all the principal feasts of the Catholic calendar. The first stage included three Masses – in four, three and five parts – that were published by Thomas East in 1592-1595. All three contain retrospective features harking back to the earlier Tudor tradition of Mass settings that lapsed after 1558. His Mass for Four Voices, or the Four-Part Mass, is partly modelled on John Taverner’s Mean Mass, a highly-regarded early Tudor setting that Byrd may have sung as a choirboy. Taverner’s influence is particularly clear in the scale figures rising successively through a fifth, a sixth and a seventh in Byrd's setting of Sanctus.

All three Mass cycles employ other early Tudor features, notably the mosaic of semi-choir sections alternating with full sections in the four-part and five-part Masses, the use of a semi-choir section to open the Gloria, Credo and Agnus Dei, and the head-motif that links the openings of all the movements of a cycle. However, all three cycles also include Kyries, a rare feature in Sarum Rite mass settings that usually omitted it because of the use of tropes on festal occasions in the Sarum Rite.

The Kyrie of the three-part Mass is set in a simple litany-like style, but the other Kyrie settings employ dense imitative polyphony.

A special feature of the four-part and five-part Masses is Byrd’s treatment of the Agnus Dei, employing the technique Byrd had previously applied to the petitionary clauses from the motets in the 1589 and 1591 Cantiones sacrae. The final words, dona nobis pacem (“Prant us peace”) are set to chains of anguished suspensions in the Four-Part Mass and expressive block-homophony in the five-part setting. They may reflect the aspirations of troubled Catholics in the 1590s.

The second stage in Byrd’s programme of liturgical polyphony is formed by the Gradualia, two cycles of motets with 109 items, published in 1605 and 1607. Their appearance reflects the hopes of Roman Catholics an easier life under the new King James I.

The greater part of the two collections consists of settings of the Proprium Missae for the major feasts in the church calendar, including the major feasts of the Virgin Mary, All Saints and Corpus Christi (1605), followed by Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and the Feasts of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, with additional items for Saint Peter’s Chains and the Votive Mass of the Blessed Sacrament (1607).

The 1605 set also contains a number of miscellaneous items, mostly four- and three-part sections from the Primer or the Book of Hours. These include settings of the four Marian antiphons from the Roman Rite, four Marian hymns, a version of the Litany, the setting of the Eucharistic hymn Ave verum Corpus, and the Turbarum voces from the Saint John Passion, and various miscellaneous items.

The 1607 set omits several texts that were too sensitive in the wake of renewed anti-Catholic persecution after the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Yet Byrd felt safe enough to reissue both sets with new title pages in 1610.

The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, rehearsing for Choral Evensong ... William Byrd contributed to Anglican church music and the emergence of the new verse anthem Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Byrd’s Roman Catholic loyalties did not prevent him from contributing to Anglican church music at the same time. His small output of church anthems ranges in style from relatively sober early examples (O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our queen, a6, and How long shall mine enemies, a5) to later works such as Sing joyfully, a6, which is close in style to the English motets of Byrd’s 1611 set.

Byrd played a role in the emergence of the new verse anthem, which seems to have evolved in part from the practice of adding vocal refrains to consort songs. His four Anglican service settings range in style from the unpretentious Short Service to the magnificent Great Service. Byrd’s setting is on a massive scale, requiring five-part Decani and Cantoris groupings in antiphony, block homophony and five-, six- and eight-part counterpoint with verse (solo) sections for added variety.

This service setting, which includes an organ part, was probably sung by the Chapel Royal Choir on major liturgical occasions in the early 17th century. Although its limited circulation suggests many other cathedral choirs found it beyond their ability, it was sung in York Minster from about 1618.

Byrd’s last collection of English songs, Psalms, Songs and Sonnets, was published in 1611, when he was over 70. This broadly follows the pattern of his 1589 set, and is laid out in sections for three, four, five and six parts, and includes two consort fantasias (a4 and a6) as well as eleven English motets, most of them setting prose texts from the Bible. These include some of his most famous compositions, notably Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles (a6), This day Christ was born (a6) and Have mercy upon me (a6).

There are more carols set in verse and burden form as in the 1589 set as well as lighter three and four-part songs in Byrd’s ‘sonnets and pastorals’ style.

Byrd also contributed eight keyboard pieces to Parthenia (1612–1613), a collection of 21 keyboard pieces containing music by Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons. It was issued in celebration of the marriage of James I’s daughter Princess Elizabeth and the Elector Palatine, Frederick V, on 14 February 1613. Byrd’s contribution includes his Earl of Salisbury Pavan, composed in memory of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, who died in 1612, and its two accompanying galliards.

Byrd’s last published compositions are four English anthems printed in William Leighton’s Teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowfull Soule (1614).

Byrd remained in Stondon Massey until his death on 4 July 1623, according to the Julian calendar, or on 14 July 1623 according to the Gregorian calendar. His death is noted in the Chapel Royal Check Book in a unique entry describing him as “a Father of Musick.” Despite repeated citations and fines for recusancy, he died a rich man.

Byrd’s output justifies his reputation as one of the great masters of European Renaissance music. His most impressive achievement as a composer was his ability to transform many of the main musical forms of his day and stamp them with his own identity. He assimilated and mastered the Continental motet form of his day, employing a highly personal synthesis of English and continental models.

Byrd virtually created the Tudor consort and keyboard fantasia, having only the most primitive models to follow. He raised the consort song, the church anthem and the Anglican service setting to new heights. Despite a general aversion to the madrigal, he succeeded in cultivating secular vocal music in an impressive variety of forms in his three sets of 1588, 1589 and 1611.

But, while Byrd had a major reputation in England during his lifetime, his music was in many ways without influence, although his pupils included Thomas Tomkins, Peter Philips and Thomas Morley.

Despite Byrd’s religious beliefs, it was his Anglican church music that came closest to establishing a tradition that was lasting. Despite his recusancy, he is honoured alongside Tallis and Merbecke and Byrd on 21 November in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church.

5, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)

Orlando Gibbons ... a leading composer in late Tudor and early Jacobean England

Orlando Gibbons was a leading composer in late Tudor and early Jacobean England of his day, and the organist at both Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal.

Gibbons was born in Cambridge in 1583, the son of William Gibbons, and was baptised on 25 December 1583. His brothers included Edward Gibbons (1568-1650), who was master of the choristers at King’s College, Cambridge; and Ellis Gibbons (1573-1603) who was a promising composer until his early death.

King’s College Cambridge ... Orlando Gibbons sang in the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, where his brother Edward was the master of the choristers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Between 1596 and 1598, Orlando Gibbons sang in the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, where his brother Edward was the master of the choristers. He matriculated a sizar from King’s College at Easter 1598, and received the degree of Bachelor of Music in Cambridge University in 1606. He was incorporated at Oxford University in 1607, but in the Dictionary of National Biography, he is wrongly supposed to be an MA of Cambridge.

James I appointed him a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, where he served as an organist from at least 1615 until his death.

He was conferred with a doctorate in Music (Mus.D.) at Oxford in 1622.

In 1623, he became the senior organist at the Chapel Royal, with Thomas Tomkins as junior organist. He also held positions as keyboard player in the privy chamber of the court of Prince Charles (later King Charles I), and organist at Westminster Abbey.

He was summoned to Canterbury to attend the wedding of Charles I, for which he had composed an ode. He was seized suddenly with apoplexy at Canterbury and died suddenly at the age of 41 on 5 June 1625. He was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, where a monument was erected to him.

His sudden death and his immediate burial in Canterbury rather than London created rumours that Gibbons had died of the plague, which was rife that year. But two doctors present at his death performed an autopsy, opened his skull and reported no symptoms of plague.

His wife Elizabeth died a year later in her mid-30s, leaving Orlando’s eldest brother, Edward, to care for their children. Of these children, only the eldest son, Christopher Gibbons, became a musician.

To this day, Gibbons’s obit service is commemorated every year in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

One of the most versatile English composers of his time, Gibbons wrote a quantity of keyboard works, around 30 fantasias for viols, a number of madrigals (the best-known being The Silver Swan), and many popular verse anthems.

His choral music is distinguished by his complete mastery of counterpoint, combined with his wonderful gift for melody. Perhaps his best-known verse anthem is This is the record of John, which sets an Advent text for solo counter-tenor or tenor, alternating with full chorus.

He also produced two major settings of Evensong, the Short Service and the Second Service. The former includes a beautifully expressive Nunc Dimittis, while the latter is an extended composition, combining verse and full sections.

Gibbons’s full anthems include the expressive O Lord, in thy wrath, and the Ascension Day anthem O clap your hands together for eight voices.

Around 1611, he contributed six pieces to the first printed collection of keyboard music in England, Parthenia He was the youngest of the three contributors to this collection.

Gibbons’s surviving keyboard output amounts to 45 pieces. His writing shows his full mastery of three- and four-part counterpoint. His approach to melody in both fantasias and dances features a capability for almost limitless development of simple musical ideas, on display in works such as Pavane in D minor and Lord Salisbury's Pavan and Galliard.

6, Thomas Tomkins (1572-1625)

Thomas Tomkins ... links the great Anglican composers of Tudor and Stuart eras with the Laudian era and the Caroline Divines

Thomas Tomkins was an English composer of the late Tudor and early Stuart period, and the last member of the virginalist school. His life links the great Anglican composers of the Tudor and Stuart eras with the Laudian era and the Caroline Divines.

Tomkins was born in St David’s, Pembrokeshire, in 1572. His father, also Thomas Tomkins, had moved to St David’s in 1565 from Lostwithiel in Cornwall, and was a vicar choral and organist at Saint David;s Cathedral.

Three of the half-brothers of Thomas Tomkins, John, Giles and Robert Tomkins, also became eminent musicians. Around 1586-1594, the family moved to Gloucester, where Thomas Tomkins senior was a minor canon at the cathedral.

Thomas Tomkins lmost certainly studied under William Byrd for a time, and one of his songs bears the inscription: “To my ancient, and much reverenced Master, William Byrd.”

Byrd may have helped the young Thomas to find a place as chorister in the Chapel Royal. All former Chapel Royal choristers were given a place at university, and Tomkins was affiliated to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1607.

In 1596, he was appointed organist and master of the choristers at Worcester Cathedral. In 1597, he married Alice Patrick, a widow nine years his senior. Her first husband Nathaniel, who died in 1595, had been Tomkins’s predecessor at Worcester. Thomas’s only son, Nathaniel, was born in Worcester in 1599, and he spent the rest of his life there, becoming a respected musician.

Tomkins, like Thomas Morley, was a pupil of Byrd, and he signed copy of Morley's Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597). In 1601, Morley included one of Tomkins’s madrigals in his collection, The Triumphs of Oriana.

In 1612, Tomkins oversaw the construction of a new organ in Worcester Cathedral by Thomas Dallam, the foremost organ-builder of the day. He continued writing verse anthems, and his collection of 28 madrigals, the Songs of 3, 4, 5 and 6 parts was finally published in 1622 with a dedicatory poem by his half-brother, John Tomkins, by then the organist of King’s College, Cambridge.

Throughout his life, Thomas Tomkins maintained an intimate and loving relationship with John, who later became the organist of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and then of the Chapel Royal.

By about 1603, Thomas Tomkins was appointed a Gentleman Extraordinary of the Chapel Royal. This was an honorary post, but in 1621 he became a Gentleman Ordinary and organist under his friend and senior organist, Orlando Gibbons. The duties included regular journeys between Worcester and London.

When King James I died in March 1625 Tomkins, and the other Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, were required to attend to both the music for the king’s funeral and for the coronation of his son, King Charles I.

However, these tasks were too much for Gibbons, who died of a stroke in Canterbury, where Charles was supposed to meet his future bride, Princess Henrietta Maria of France. This placed an even greater strain on Tomkins. Because of the plague, however, the coronation was postponed until February 1626, giving Tomkins time to compose most of the eight anthems sung at the ceremony.

In 1628, Tomkins was named “Composer of [the King’s] Music in ordinary” with an annuity of £40. This post, the highest honour available to an English musician, but his appointment was quickly revoked on the grounds that it had been promised to his predecessor’s son. However, he continued to perform his dual duties in Worcester and London until 1639.

The English Civil War broke out in 1642, and Tomkins’s wife Alice died that year. Worcester was one of the first casualties of the civil war. The cathedral was desecrated, and Tomkins’s organ was badly damaged by the Parliamentarians.

In 1643, Tomkins’s house near the cathedral suffered a direct hit by cannon shot, making it uninhabitable for a long period, and destroying most of his household goods and many of his musical manuscripts. About this time Tomkins married his second wife, Martha Browne, the widow of a lay clerk of Worcester Cathedral.

Further conflict and a siege in 1646 caused untold damage to Worcester. With the choir disbanded and the cathedral closed, Tomkins turned to composing some of his finest keyboard and consort music.

In 1647, he wrote a belated tribute to Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, and a further one to the memory of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, both beheaded in 1641 and both admired by Tomkins.

Charles I was executed in 1649, and a few days later the royalist Tomkins composed his Sad Pavan: for these distracted times.

His second wife Martha died around 1653. Tomkins, now aged 81, found himself in serious financial difficulties. In 1654, his son Nathaniel married Isabella Folliott, a wealthy widow, and Thomas went to live with them in Martin Hussingtree, four miles outside Worcester. He expressed his gratitude by composing his Galliard, The Lady Folliot’s, in her honour. He died two years later on 9 June 1656 and was buried in the churchyard of Martin Hussingtree on 9 June 1656.

Thomas Tomkins ... recorded by the Choir of Sidney Sussex College Cambridge

Tomkins wrote madrigals, keyboard music, consort music, anthems, and liturgical music. Stylistically he was conservative, ignoring the rising Baroque practice around him, and he avoided writing in most of the popular forms of the time, such as the lute song, or ayre. His polyphonic language, even in the mid-17th century, was that of the Renaissance.

He was a prolific composer of verse anthems, writing more than any other English composer of the 17th century except William Child. These were highly regarded at the time, and have survived through the efforts of his son, Nathaniel Tomkins, who edited most of it and published in 1668 as the collection Musica Deo sacra et ecclesiae Anglicanae; or Music dedicated to the Honour and Service of God, and to the Use of Cathedral and other Churches of England).


  1. All your pages are great ... interesting text, beautiful pictures; church history, family history (I have a friend named Commerford) - I particularly enjoyed your theological thoughts! :-)

  2. Why have you depicted Thomas Tomkins with an image of Oliver Cromwell?