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Posts Tagged ‘Henry VII

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.