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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Music from Canterbury

by Gary D. Penkala

The Composers

The cathedral music tradition of England in the 15th to 18th centuries has much to offer the Catholic church musician today. The British penchant for order, logic, decorum and protocol can bring a sense of dignity to our modern liturgy. Too often, under the guise of informality, we allow liturgy to become sloppy, haphazard. Refinement, formality and order should not be seen as opponents of good liturgy, but should be cultivated.

Here is a brief look at some composers from the English school and a list of some of their music suitable for most organists and choirs.

John Dunstable (1370-1453) was once described as "an astrologian, a mathematician, a musician, and what not." Not many details are known of his life. His music shows the beginnings of contrapuntal refinement and he is credited with writing the Agincourt Hymn to celebrate the victory of Henry V over the French in 1415.

Christopher Tye (1499-1572), a contemporary of Henry VIII, served as organist at Ely Cathedral beginning in 1540. Although ordained in the new Anglican sect, he wrote much music for the Roman Catholic Church. It is in his music where distinction can first be made between a Catholic and Anglican style in music, the latter being more chordal and syllabic, owing to a directive from Thomas Cramner, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) is known as the Father of English Cathedral Music. He was organist at Waltham Abbey and in 1540 became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. His compositions include masses, motets, anthems and settings of Morning and Evening Prayer. Together with William Byrd he held patent rights for twenty-one years on all music printing and lined music paper in England.

William Byrd (1543-1623), despite his service as organist at Lincoln Cathedral and his tenure in the Chapel Royal, remained a staunch Catholic all his life. Byrd, the most significant English composer of the 16th century, used pictoral techinques to amplify the texts of his motets (arise, descend, sleep, suddenly) and employed great rhythmic variety, using the range from whole notes to sixteenth notes in one anthem.

Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) was a student of Byrd. He served as organist at Worcester Cathedral and became a member of the Chapel Royal in 1621. Ninety-three of his anthems survive, over half in the polyphonic texture of earlier periods, a style in which he excelled.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) wrote exclusively for the Anglican Church. His music, in particular his verse anthems and full anthems, formed a transition from the old contrapuntal style of the 16th century to the new homophonic style of the 17th century.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is England's greatest Baroque composer. He wrote much secular music, including opera and masque, but his contribution to church music includes numerous anthems, motets and oratorios. He succeeded John Blow as organist at Westminster Abbey in 1679.

Jeremiah Clarke (1660-1707) held various posts in England until in 1707, in severe depression, he took his own life. His hymn tunes were described as "beautiful and having the plaintive grace characteristic of his music and melancholy temperment."

William Boyce (1710-1779) was organist at Saint Paul's Cathedral. He completed an edition of 16th and 17th century music begun by Maurice Greene and contributed greatly to the English organ voluntary form of the 18th century.

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Part II: The Music 

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