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Composer Biography: Christopher Tye (c1500-c1572)

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Christopher Tye had part, along with John Taverner (1495-1545) and Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), in shaping English music in a way that made it possible for more famous composers, such as William Byrd (1543-1623) and Henry Purcell (1659-1695) to be as remarkable as they were. You’ve probably heard of those last two. This is the story of an unsung hero—or at least seldom sung.

Tye was born at Doddington-cum-Marche on the Isle of Ely sometime between 1500 and 1505. Not much is known about his family, but we do know some of his whereabouts. He was at King’s College, Cambridge, between 1508 and 1545. Considering his extreme youth when he arrived, he was probably a choirboy there. He also earned a Bachelor’s degree at King’s College in 1536 and became a lay clerk in 1537.

Tye officially began his adult musical career sometime after 1525 as an organist. By 1543, he was choirmaster at Ely cathedral and later became organist there in 1559.

Next, he earned a Doctor of Music degree at King’s College in 1545. Because one wasn’t enough, he earned another doctorate at Oxford in 1548.

Tye was introduced at Henry VIII’s court in the late 1540s and he became Prince Edward’s music tutor. It’s possible that he was also Mary and Elizabeth’s tutor. There were a lot of heavy hitters at court already, including William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, John Merbecke, and John Sheppard. Tye stayed at Ely through the reign of Queen Mary (from 1553 until 1558) despite his apparent Protestant leanings. Mary probably had some affection for him if he had been her tutor.

The title page of Tye’s Actes of the Apostles (London 1553) describes him as one of the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, but it isn’t known when he joined that band of auspicious musicians. (For more on the Chapel Royal, see my blog On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player.)

He was well-respected among his peers and among the royals. King Edward VI reportedly quoted his father, Henry VIII, as saying that “England hath one God, one truth, one doctor hath for music’s art, and that is Doctor Tye, admired for skill in music’s harmony.”

Two or three years after Elizabeth became queen, Tye’s Protestant piety led him to become a rector, although people said that he was a terrible preacher. Unlike John Taverner, who renounced music as part of his Calvinist leanings, Tye thought that music helped reinforce the message of the scripture to the listener. He is given at least partial credit for inventing the musical form known as the anthem. (For more about anthems, you’ll want to read my blog on William Byrd, coming soon.)

Matching his actions to his ideals, Tye set the first 14 chapters of the New Testament book “Acts of the Apostles” to music. Although the music he wrote was good, he was a terrible librettist. In fact, even Tye said that his text was “full base.” Nevertheless, he meant for the piece to be sung accompanied by a lute, and said that if people couldn’t sing it themselves, they could enjoy listening to the music and learn from it. He never finished the whole Bible book, but he saw music as an excellent method for interacting with scripture.

In the 1520s, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1527) wrote a letter to Henry VIII (1491-1547) in which he said that a “song should not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, a syllable for every note,” and saying that the new English music should take this form. Taverner was so disgusted that he gave up composition altogether. But Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) and Tye continued to write music for the new Protestant services, although these works were not as technically interesting or artistic as the Latin music had been. Both composers continued writing secular Latin motets, but no more Masses.

Only 11 of Tye’s surviving works are complete. There are three Masses, about 18 Latin motets, 15 English anthems and other English settings, and around 30 consort works (for families of instruments. (For more on instrument families, see my blog posts Instrument Biography: The Vielle, Instrument Biography: The Cornetto, and Instrument Biography: The Recorder.)

Of his consort works, there were more than 20 individual five-voice In Nomine. (My post Composer Biography: John Taverner covers the tasty morsel called In Nomines.)

His antiphon Ave caput Christi dates from c1530-1535. He wrote a five-voice Mass (published in the Peterhouse Partbooks—a collection of music manuscripts in a set of 17 books from the 1540s and earlier) and a Mass called “Western Wynde” that may both date from before 1540.

Tye’s Latin church music (Masses, antiphons, Magnificats, etc.) were probably written during Henry VIII’s reign and shows the influence of Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521) and his contemporaries. The 15 surviving English anthems probably date from Edward VI’s reign (1547-1553). Tye’s Latin Psalm settings Omnes gentes, plaudit and Cantate Domno, and his six-voice Mass Euge bone, all deftly use the Continental motet techniques and probably date from Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-1558).

Tye’s Latin music also includes psalm settings and Masses, notably one set on The Western Wynde, a folk song of the time, and also set by John Taverner and John Sheppard. He composed works in English for the Church of England, including services and anthems, and his hymn tune “Winchester Old” is probably based on a piece from his own Acts of the Apostles.

Tye occasionally used the Continental style of repetition to the point of his music sounding a bit routine. But the Actes of the Apostles (1553), which was meant for instruction and recreational use, features metrical texts and simple four-voice music that’s rather nice. He dedicated it to King Edward VI.

Tye also used imitation (A Continental style where each voice repeats a certain musical gesture, sometimes in a different place in the scale, and sometimes identically) more consistently than Tallis in his anthems. But it wasn’t until William Byrd that the first great music for Anglican worship was produced. Tallis and Tye were models for Byrd.

Tye died in 1572 or 1573, apparently still musically active under Elizabeth I. Anthony Wood (a 17th century antiquary) relates that Tye was a peevish and moody fellow, especially as he aged. Tye played the organ in Elizabeth’s chapel, but it didn’t always please her. She occasionally sent the verger to tell him that he played out of tune. He responded that her ears were out of tune.


“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“The New Grove High Renaissance Masters,” by Jeremy Noble, Gustave Reese, Lewis Lockwood, James Haar, Jessie Ann Owens, Joseph Kerman, Robert Stevenson. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1984.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

Composer Biography: John Lloyd (also Floyd or Flude) (c1475-1523)

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Not much is known about John Lloyd, but he was part of the important Chapel Royal, court musicians to English royalty, in the 16th century, and his name comes up frequently when researching other composers during Henry VIII’s reign.

Lloyd was either English or Welsh, and he was a priest. He served the parish of Munslow in Shropshire from 1508, and not long afterward, in 1510 or so, he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and went to court.

He wrote at least one Mass. It was highly florid and melismatic with soaring melodic lines and euphonious counterpoint, much like music on the Continent had been before Henry VII’s time and how it became again after Henry VIII and the Reformation. The chant (O quam suavis) on which his Mass is based is very long.

Henry VIII made efforts to end English musical isolationism, and in addition to arranging marriages and other diplomatic efforts, he took members of his Chapel Royal to Europe and encouraged his musicians to exchange knowledge. Lloyd probably went with Henry VIII to meet the Burgundian Chapel of Margaret of Austria with the rest of the Chapel Royal in 1513, and in 1520, to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where they met the French Chapel of Francis I. While they were there, it was Trinity Sunday and they sang the movements of a Mass alternately, first the French Chapel Royal and then the English Chapel Royal and so on. When they all returned to England, Lloyd left the group and went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Just as we don’t know much about his life, we also don’t know much about his compositions. He wrote two puzzle canons (where much of the melody and how to sing the piece must be worked out by the performers) that are preserved in King Henry VIII’s Manuscript (see my post On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player for more on that), and in them, we hear the last remaining relics of medievalism.

His Mass that I mentioned earlier, O Quam suavis, has a tenor line that provides the solution to the puzzle of a Latin canon.


“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“A Dictionary of Early Music from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1982.

Written by Melanie Spiller

September 23, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Composer Biography: William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523) (also Cornyshe or Cornish)

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William Cornysh is another one of those English composers who went from Henry VII’s court to Henry VIII’s, along with Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521), John Taverner (1495-1545), and John Lloyd (d.1523). Both monarchs were terrifically interested in music, and it’s possible that Young William was there with his father, who was also a musician at court. But William the Elder died sometime before 1502, so they were only together at Henry VII’s Chapel Royal.

Not much is known about either man, but it’s probable that they lived in Greenwich, because Young William was born there in 1468.

I didn’t find all the facts, but Young William got himself into a bit of trouble in 1504 over a political pamphlet. He was imprisoned, and in the only surviving poem from him, written from Fleet Prison, he claims to have been wrongly accused and convicted by false information. Although it isn’t known exactly what the conviction was for, it can’t have been too serious, because he soon returned to favor and to court.

At court from 1495, Young William then became Master of the Children at the Chapel Royal, a post he held until his death. As the Master, he was responsible for the musical and dramatic entertainments at court and during important diplomatic events. He would have composed some of them, and directed all of them.

Between 1490 and 1502, scholars at Eton College collected as much great music as they could find and published it in what is known as the Eton Choirbook. Cornysh is represented there, but it could have been his father, as both were alive and merrily producing music at the time. William the Elder died that same year.

Cornysh made the first of his many journeys to the Continent as part of Henry VIII’s retinue to France in 1513 for the Battle of the Spurs (which Henry won), where he met with the Burgundian Queen of Austria, Margaret, and her Chapel Royal. He also went to the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520), along with Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521) and John Taverner (1495-1545), and other important musicians of the day. It must have been an amazing festival, considering the big names in attendance, which included the French Chapel Royal of Francis I.

He traveled at the discretion of the Henry VIII, and visited the courts of France and the Holy Roman Empire. Presumably, he gathered information about what was going on musically on his journeys, although, until nearly the end of the 16th century and William Byrd (1543-1623) (blog post to come), England had a strong history of musical isolationism.

As I mentioned, Cornysh was well represented in the Eton Choirbook. The style ranges from a flamboyant Stabat mater to a simple Ave Maria Mater Dei and it’s possible that his father wrote in one style and he wrote in the other. But it’s also possible that he wrote all of them, as his part songs are similarly versatile. For example, his Yow and I and Amyas is simple and chordal (for more on what I mean by this, check out my post on Chords versus Polyphony), and A robyn is a three-part canon (like a round) that incorporates elements of a pre-existing melody. Other works in the Eton Choirbook include Salve Regina, Gaude virgo mater Christi, and a lost piece, Gaude flore virginali.

Another collection, the Caius Choirbook (c1518-1520), contains a Magnificat attributed to Cornysh. His later work, in five parts, displays the extreme vocal exuberance of the Eton Choirbook composers, although they were preserved in the Caius Choirbook. Other sources refer to lost works—three Masses, another Stabat mater, another Magnificat, and a motet.

He produced secular vocal music in the form of three part songs, and the English anthem Woefully arrayed. There is a single three-part instrumental work based on the steps of the hexachord (for more on hexachords, see my post on Odo of Cluny) and its mutations Fa la sol, and another untitled piece. The secular works are found in the Fayrfax Book, yet another collection, copied in 1501.

Cornysh wrote music for court pageants, one of which was performed at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and a number of secular songs preserved in the Henry VIII Manuscript (yet another collection. You can read more about both the event and the manuscript in my post On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player).

If all the earlier sacred music is from the same fellow as the later secular music, he exhibited some musical breadth. Although his works don’t display the same simplifying approach of Fayrfax’s work—his are in a more old-fashioned and florid style—they adopt a proto-madrigalian manner (more Continental in style) and have a particularly developed sense of tonal movement. They also use appoggiatura (notes strictly for ornamentation) in melodic shapes to bring out the stresses in the Latin phrases. He uses words and sounds (like “O”) to attract attention to the words. Other composers would have had the voices suddenly line up into unison, but Cornysh used the premise of “whoever is moving has the attention” and popped the attention from voice to voice with sounds and rhythm. Clever, eh?

He died at Hylden, Kent in 1523, just before Henry VIII began to woo Anne Boleyn and the whole cloth of British life changed.


“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1895.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from Troubadour to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

Composer Biography: Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521)

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Robert Fayrfax was an English composer whose works bridge the divide between the Eton Choirbook composers (c1500) and John Taverner (1495-1545), and was considered the most prominent musician for both Henry VII and Henry VIII. His works document a gradual decline in florid writing, compared to those of the Eton composers, with less brilliance of vocal scoring and rhythmic complexity, headed toward the simplicity and syllabic nature of the post-Reformation sensibilities.

Fayrfax could display technical and notational intricacy, as in the Mass he submitted for his Cambridge Doctorate, but typically, his style shows discrimination and restraint. His Masses use cantus firmus technique (meaning one part played or sang the chant melody in a long sustained way while the other voices swirled around it in polyphony) in a variety of ways, that might be considered complex or playful, much like Mozart would later do with variations on a theme. For instance, he used plainsong as ostinato (a repeated melodic or rhythmic figure) that is sung backward, inverted, or both backward and inverted simultaneously.

Private Life

Fayrfax was born in Deeping Gate, Lincolnshire (England) in 1464. I didn’t find any information about his childhood, and the next time his name appears in the records, he was already at court. He found a patron in Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509) and was Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by 1497. As part of his earnings, he was granted chaplaincy of the Free Chapel at Snodhill Castle, although this was later given to Robert Cowper (dates unavailable), another Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.

Fayrfax was organist of St. Alban’s Abbey from 1498 to 1502 and he became a member of the Fraternity of St. Nicholas in 1502. At 37 years old, he received his Bachelor in Music. He earned a Doctorate in Music in 1504 at Cambridge for his Mass setting of O quam glorifica and was incorporated as the very first Doctor of Music at Oxford in 1511. From 1509 until his death, Fayrfax was the senior lay clerk at Oxford.

Henry VIII granted Fayrfax the annuity of a farm in Hampshire and later made him a Poor Knight of Windsor, with a lifetime award of 12 pennies a day, in 1514. He possessed two ecclesiastical livings (payment for services rendered to the church), which he later surrendered (I don’t know why). He also received payments for tutoring choirboys and reimbursements for clothes that he needed for state occasions. He received many payments from Henry VIII for collections of his compositions and music manuscripts between 1516 and 1520.

As a member of the Chapel Royal, Fayrfax went with Henry VIII to visit the Burgundian Chapel of Margaret of Austria in 1513 and also to the Field of the Cloth of Gold to meet the French Chapel of Francis I in 1520. In fact, he led the Chapel Royal in that state visit. (For more on this trip, see my On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player blog post.)


Fayrax is Important for his development of the Mass, and he’s known to have written six. All except one are based on a cantus firmus in the tenor (the tenor voice sings an elongated and slow version of the chant while the other parts do more elaborate polyphony). His music is less elaborate than that of William Cornysh the Younger (1496-1523) and Taverner and uses more restrained melodic lines.

Most of the works in the Eton book are more extravagant than those by Fayrfax. And although he named his pieces for them, he seldom based his works on the chants by the same name, bucking the tide of style at the time. This means that he was setting the text to original music rather than twiddling with the chant. He also uses imitation, where one part does something and then another part imitates it, either exactly or in gesture, which was a Continental style that wasn’t really popular in England until William Byrd (1543-1623) (blog post to come). His work was considered to be the leading influence on composers of the day, including Taverner and Thomas Tallis.

The Fayrfax Book (collected c1500) reflected the repertoire of Henry VII (seven) and contained only English music, largely by the composers of the Eton Choirbook (collected 1500-1505). His work was also in the Eton book, along with Cornysh.

The list of surviving works by Fayrfax include six Masses, two Magnificats, ten votive antiphons (songs in praise of Mary or another saint), nine part songs (some secular), two instrumental pieces. His Mass O bone Jesu, commissioned by Lady Margaret Beaufort (Henry VII’s mother), is considered the first “parody” Mass, which means that secular music, in several voices, is converted to liturgical purposes by providing a sacred text.

Robert Fayrfax died in 1521. He was buried at St. Albans.


“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

“A Dictionary of Early Music from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1982.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player (1491-1547)

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This blog post was written as a guest blog for and was live on August 31, 2013. Check their site out for interesting posts on all facets of British history!

Okay, so you and I both know that Henry VIII didn’t have an MP3 player. But what if he had? What kind of music would he have collected? What interesting tunes would turn up on shuffle?

<insert watery wavering lines and harp glissandos as we travel back in time…>

Henry VIII was King of England from 1509-1547. His father, Henry VII, had a serious interest in music and was a strong supporter of musicians. Throughout Henry VIII’s childhood, music occupied a prominent place at his father’s court, and young Henry was trained in music from an early age.

When he was still a teenager, it was his turn to be king, and Henry VIII turned his court into a center of musical culture. He encouraged foreign musicians to work there, introducing the Franco-Flemish style of church music (see my posts on Josquin, Dufay, and Ockeghem for more about this style) to England, and building up an enormous collection of musical instruments.

During his lifetime and after, supporters created the Henry VIII Manuscript. The manuscript is mainly a secular document, and includes descriptions of life at court (perhaps somewhat embellished and romanticized by a finely honed sense of “courtly love”). It also includes song lyrics, naming composers such as Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521) and William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523), and even the names of some of his buddies. Other manuscripts from Henry VIII’s reign contain a variety of songs and instrumental pieces in three and four parts, which was the style of the day.

From this environment, by mid-century, a distinctly English genre for solo voice accompanied by a consort of viols had emerged. The master of the consort song was William Byrd (1543-1623), who raised the technical level of the medium to new heights. Byrd’s collection was very successful in his own lifetime and after, and although English madrigal and lute songs are better known today, composers would continue to write songs for consorts well into the 17th century. But Byrd was more a composer for Elizabeth I and James than for Henry. I mention him here so that you can see how English music was hugely colored by Henry VIII, as much by the man himself as by the political and religious change that his monarchy brought about.

Speaking of change, the leader of the Reformation movement and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), wrote to Henry stating what was to become the basic principle for settings of the new English musical texts: “The song should not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, a syllable for every note.” This put the emphasis on the text, where it had been before polyphony came along, about 500 years earlier. (For more on this, read my blog posting Chords versus Polyphony.)

Composers reacted variously to the new conditions. John Taverner (1495-1545), one of England’s shining stars, gave up composition altogether to become an agent of Thomas Cromwell (c1485-1540), who was First Earl of Essex and the chief minister who helped orchestrate the annulment of Henry’s first marriage. Christopher Tye (c1505-c1572) and Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) wrote music for the Protestant services, which, while attractive, did not match the technical interest and artistry of their Latin music. Both continued to compose Latin motets, but obediently no longer wrote the lengthier (and more undeniably Catholic) Mass music.

The suppression of the monasteries between 1536 and 1547 not only involved the dispersal of monastic musicians, but often included the destruction of musical manuscripts in large quantities, so much of the pre-Reformation music of the British Isles is lost to us. We have the Fayrfax Book (collected c1500) and the Eton Choirbook (collected 1500-1505) from Henry’s father’s time, but that is nearly all that survived. (Don’t you wish there really had been MP3 players?)

The Chapel Royal

In the 13th century, English monarchs established a body of priests and musicians to provide musical entertainment and who were part of the royal household. This group was called the Chapel Royal, and to be named a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal was a considerable honor. It meant income, status, and property. (There is still such a group in England today. Other countries had similar bodies, although most have long since disbanded.)

During Henry’s father’s time, big names like William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523), Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521), and John Lloyd (d.1523) were part of this establishment, and after Henry’s time, William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) received this honor.

During Henry’s reign, only Richard Edwardes (1525-1566) seems to have been added to the very auspicious ranks. Edwardes was probably Henry’s illegitimate son by Agnes Edwards, so it’s hard to know if he was there on merit or out of some obligation on Henry’s part.

But that doesn’t mean Henry VIII didn’t surround himself with musicians of the highest caliber. It meant that many of the greatest musicians of his time were already members from his father’s reign. But he didn’t stop with British musicians. He invited big names from all over the Continent to come, and come they did.

Henry collected all things musical, and musical instruments were no exception. It probably started with the tradition of having household minstrels. At the time, minstrels were common for royal households and those of other aristocrats. Ecclesiastics kept them, and so did towns and ships. Minstrels played either haut instruments or bas (for more on haut and bas, see my post on the shawm) as required by the occasion, and they sang and were expected to compose songs on demand. Kind of like today’s rap artists.

The minstrel would have had a large collection of instruments, such as the louder winds and the trompette de menestrals (which was a slide trumpet or sackbut, not a modern trumpet), stringed and keyboard instruments, along with gentler wind instruments like recorders and cornetti. Wind instruments were his favorite, and Henry VIII had 77 recorders in his stash when he died.

Henry was a skilled all-around performer, playing several keyboard instruments, the cornetto, the recorder, and the lira de flauti (I don’t know what that is, but I’m going to guess that it’s some sort of lyre or harp). There are stories that Sir Edward Stanley (c1460-1523), the fellow reputed to have killed James IV of Scotland, wrote and sang a ballade to the clavichord while at court, but it isn’t known if Henry accompanied him.

There were plenty of people in Henry VIII’s court who played or composed, including Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521), Richard Davy (c1465-1538), William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523), Thomas Ashewell (c1478-c1513), John Redford (c1486–1547), Nicholas Ludford (c1490–1557), John Taverner (1495–1545), Christopher Tye (c1505–c1572), and most notably, Thomas Tallis (c1505–1585). And there were some Chapel members who didn’t compose but were fine musicians, such as Benedict de Opitiis (dates not available), Ambrose Lupo (d. 1591), Dionisio Memo (dates not available), and Richard Sampson (d. 1554). All of these fellows would have been on Henry’s MP3 player. There would also have been women at court who played or sang, including some of his wives, such as Anne Boleyn, who was Henry’s equal in musical skill.

Henry’s education was quite good. In addition to reading and writing in English, French, and Latin, he played the lute, organ, and virginals, along with that assortment of wind instruments. (And I thought I had a large collection of instruments!)

Music was terrifically important to him, and he brought musicians from the Continent to teach and share their compositions. It was Henry VIII that put an end to English musical isolationism, something that Elizabeth I would follow up on with enthusiasm.

In 1513, Henry took the members of the Chapel Royal to Lille, where they met the Burgundian Chapel of Margaret of Austria. It must have been a wonderful festival, full of music. While Henry was out and about, he recruited  Venetian organist Dionisio Memo (mentioned above), a whole bunch of French and Flemish musicians, and the Bruges organist Benet de Opiciis (no dates on this fellow, although he took payment for a regal organ—a post about these is coming soon—in 1518).

In 1520, they all trooped over to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in France, where they met the French Chapel of Francis I. The meeting was intended to improve relations between France and England and was considered a successful meeting, but one which not be repeated until Queen Victoria met King Louis Philippe I in 1843.

You all know the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, so I won’t tell it here. But the result of the fracas was a new church. In 1534, Henry convinced Parliament to separate from Rome and named himself as the new head of the Church of England. The new church remained essentially Catholic in Doctrine under Henry, but Henry wanted a few changes. He wanted less pomp and circumstance, as prescribed by the Mass format, but more importantly, he wanted the services to be in English rather than Latin, the language of Rome. English music would be changed forever.

The Music and Musicians

The leading composer of the early 16th century was John Taverner (c1490-1545). His Masses and motets exemplify the English taste for long melismas (lots of notes on a single syllable), full textures, and cantus-firmus (the chant melody, usually performed slowly as a counterpoint to the polyphony swirling around it). This is the opposite of what Thomas Cranmer prescribed, if you’ll recall, and probably had a lot to do with Taverner’s quitting the music business.

Most of Taverner’s church music was probably written during the years 1526-30, while he was organist and choirmaster of Cardinal College (now Christ Church), at Oxford. It includes eight Masses, three Magnificats, and some shorter pieces. But Taverner was attracted to Lutheranism, and he became a zealous agent of Thomas Cromwell during the Dissolution and repented that he’d previously made “Popish ditties.” He abandoned composition altogether.

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1527) also wrote to Henry, stating the basic principles for settings of the new English texts. He also preferred syllabic music (one note per syllable) rather than melismatic (a single syllable spread over lots of notes). But not all composers agreed.

Christopher Tye (c1505-c1572) and Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) wrote music for the Protestant services. They were nice, but not as interesting or technical as their Latin music. Both Tye and Tallis continued to compose Latin motets but not Masses, and it is perhaps this simplification of music that led to what would become the English anthem (you’ll read more about those in my post on William Byrd, coming soon).

The most important mid-century English composer—not just for the 16th century, but probably until our own times—was Thomas Tallis (c1505-1565). Firmly Catholic despite the laws against practicing Catholicism, he would come to write English service music and other sacred works that reflected the religious and political upheavals in England during Henry’s rule and through Elizabeth’s. But he couldn’t hide his own pain at the dismal situation his own religion was in, and it’s reflected in his music, either in the melody or in the texts he chose.

Another noted composer of the times was John Merbecke (c1510-c1585). He wrote that music should follow natural speech rhythms. In 1522, Merbecke was among the pro-Calvinists who proclaimed that all music was vanity.

But what would Henry have listened to; what would he have asked his musicians to play? Part songs, which is music written for multiple voice parts (like soprano, alto, tenor, bass) were popular in Henry’s reign, and the fashion continued long after. Keyboard music was new and in vogue, such as that of John Redford (1485-1545) for virginals and organ. Most of these songs were based on chant, now called plainsong in England, with either imitative counterpoints or florid ornamental lines as accompaniment. There are plenty of dances, settings of psalm tunes and chant melodies by Redford’s contemporaries, and transcriptions of secular part songs and anthems in the Mulliner Book (compiled 1545-1570).

The FitzWilliam Virginals Book (collected 1562-1612) is from later years, but it contains organ works from earlier, such as dances, variations on themes, and fantasia forms (lots of improvisation) that are usually found only in the lute repertoire. The virginals or virginal (depending on what country you’re in) was a keyboard instrument similar to the harpsichord, and was very popular among those with smaller parlors.

Any Excuse

There would have been many reasons for making music. Church, obviously, would have been one of them. But it wasn’t all seriousness and prayer. There would have been dances, ceremonies for visiting dignitaries and the promotion of the aristocracy, and social entertainments. There would have been tournaments, festivals, and breaks from the work-a-day drudgery of ruling a nation. There would have been ambient music during meals, fanfares announcing the king’s arrival, and notifications of arriving ships or dignitaries. There would have been loads of music everywhere the king went. Except when he didn’t want it, of course. That’s what being king is all about.

Henry wrote plenty of music himself. There are 34 pieces identified as by Henry, and there are possibly more attributed to “anonymous” or lost. Of the 20 vocal items he wrote, many are not original but are arrangements of existing music, and his instrumental offerings might also have been arrangements.

Pieces for which Henry gets credit include Helas madam and Pastyme with good companye, which are two of his most famous works. They’re very much in the style of what was going on over on the Continent. They also found 13 instrumental pieces in three or four parts, and a three-part motet, Quem pulchra est.

White note mensuration was used to write all this music down. You’ll want to have a look at that over on the blog post I wrote about the History of Music Notation. There’s too much to go into that here.

After Henry VIII

When Henry died, his son Edward was too young to take the throne properly. He had advisors, and as you can imagine, it was a fractious time to be at court. The Edwardian Act of Uniformity devastated all remaining musical establishments by forbidding the celebration of Mass. Attending church became less formal, a poor substitute for what had previously been the chief feature of the daily musical life at cathedrals, churches, and colleges. Whole throngs of monastic and clerical musicians were essentially sent out to compete with lay musicians, seeking patrons and busking to earn their keep.

Under Mary, for five years, Mass music reappeared along with the official restoration of Catholicism. But as soon as Elizabeth took the throne, it was banned again. In the new type of service established during Elizabeth’s reign, Latin motets could be used as church music, along with the new form, the anthem. You’ll want to read my blog post on William Byrd (1543-1623) when I publish it for more on that subject. He’s quite a character!

If you want to build your own MP3 player full of the same music Henry would have heard, you’ll want to search for music by the fellows in this article. Here. I’ll make it easier:


“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche.  Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1973.

“Music Manuscripts,” by Arthur Searle. The British Library, London, 1987.