Tudor Church Music

English church music during the Tudor period (roughly the whole of the 16th century) was shaped significantly by the political and religious upheavals of the English Reformation. During this period, Protestantism displaced Catholicism as the official religion of England, and although counter-reformers (notably Mary I, Queen of Scots) attempted with occasional and temporary success to bring Catholicism back to official status, by the end of the century Protestantism was well established as the state religion and has remained so to this day.

This upheaval had major impacts on musical style in English churches. Since Protestants believed in the fundamental importance of hearing the Divine Word, they favored liturgical and devotional music that all attendees at services could easily understand. Accordingly, the preferred language for church music became English rather than Latin, and composers were generally expected to write in a “syllabic” rather than a melismatic style – one note per syllable, so as to make the music’s religious message as easily intelligible as possible. (The strictness of this expectation varied over time, and composers often found ways around it.) And, of course, hymns and motets of devotion to the Virgin Mary became a bit more complicated in this context. Signaling a tendency towards Catholicism at this time was not just out of favor musically, but could also lead to persecution and even death.

Despite these stylistic changes and political pressures, in the English church some features of Catholic liturgical music persisted: the Mass remained an important feature of worship, as did the motet, the antiphon, and other familiar forms, but new ones emerged as well, such as the anthem. And at the same time, many Tudor composers were continuing to develop secular forms such as the madrigal, as well as non-religious instrumental music – this period saw the flourishing of consort music as well as church music. 

Today the Tudor period is widely regarded as representing the high-water mark of English religious music. Two serious contenders for the title of Greatest English Composer of All Time – William Byrd and Thomas Tallis – emerged during the 16th century, and their music continues to be widely and regularly performed and recorded today. Other notable English composers of the period include Robert Fayrfax, William Cornysh, Thomas Weelkes, and Orlando Gibbons, many of whom lapsed into obscurity for centuries until the early music movement of the late 20th century prompted a new interest in Renaissance music generally. Today, the music of many composers from the Tudor period is easy to find on recordings and is regularly performed in concert.

Singing In Secret: Clandestine Catholic Music By William Byrd cover

Although he is one of the towering figures of church music in the Tudor Reformation period and enjoyed the special favor (and therefore protection) of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, the English composer William Byrd was actually a Roman Catholic. Very carefully — by means of subtlety and musical double meanings — he was able to express his faith in some of his compositions, many of which are collected here.

John Browne: Music from the Eton Choirbook cover

One of the earliest composers of the Tudor period was John Browne, most of whose work has been lost. Some of it can be found (alongside that of his better-known contemporaries) in the Eton Choirbook, and a selection of that music is performed here by the Tallis Scholars, perhaps the foremost interpreters of English music from this period. Particularly noteworthy is Browne’s Stabat iuxta setting, scored unusually for four tenors and two basses — but everything on this album is worth hearing.

John Sheppard: Media vita cover

The Tudor composer John Sheppard has languished somewhat in the shadow of his more celebrated contemporaries Thomas Tallis and John Taverner — but as this gorgeous recording by the Oxbridge ensemble Stile Antico demonstrates, his music stands up very well to comparison with any of them. The program includes both Catholic hymns in Latin and English anthems written in a style that adheres to Reformation strictures.

Imperatrix inferni: Votive Antiphons & Ritual Music cover

The title might make it sound a bit like a Danish death-metal album, but don’t be fooled: it’s a collection of music by the great Tudor composer John Taverner, one of the last of the composer of that period who still wrote in what could be called a late-Medieval style, characterized by extensive use of melisma and harmonies that still have those slight sawtooth edges that would later be smoothed out during the Reformation. As always, the singing by Alamire is outstanding.

Cornysh, Turges, Prentes: Latin Church Music cover

The early Tudor composer William Cornysh was the son of a different William Cornysh, who was also a composer, leading to some confusion as to which one is responsible for the music on this particular disc of sacred works in Latin — one of the conductors on this recording believes it is, in fact, the elder Cornysh. The astringent, late-Ars-Nova flavor of the harmonies would seem to support this idea. In any case, the music is gorgeous and so is the singing by The Cardinall’s Musick under Andrew Carwood and David Skinner.

Parsons, R.: First Great Service / Responds for the Dead cover

In the mid-16th century, when English King Edward VI ushered in the Protestant Reformation, it became the duty of court composers to initiate a new style of church music written in English. Robert Parsons was there and undertook the assignment, producing his First Service using texts taken from the king’s prayer book. This recording includes extracts from that work, along with several liturgical pieces in Latin and his magisterial Magnificat setting.

William Byrd: The Great Service cover

In the Church of England, the liturgical day features three services: Matins (in the morning), Communion, and Evensong. William Byrd’s Great Service is a collection of pieces designed to be sung across these services throughout the day, written for a ten-voice ensemble divided into two choirs of five voices each. The hymns and songs include Magnificat and Nunc dimittis sections, and are magnificently sung here by the Tallis Scholars.

Robert Fayrfax: Music for Tudor Kings and Queens cover

Robert Fayrfax is one of the earliest of the great Tudor composers, already well into his career at the turn of the 16th century. To celebrate the quincentenary of his death, the outstanding Ensemble Pro Victoria put together this collection of pieces written (as the title indicates) for monarchs of the period, including his astringent Magnificat regale and a lovely Salve Regina setting. All of his known secular works (nine madrigals) are included as well, and they make an interesting contrast to the sacred pieces.

The Tallis Scholars Sing Thomas Tallis cover

Who better to provide a two-disc selection of works by the great English composer Thomas Tallis than the ensemble that was founded under his name in 1973? Leading with the magnificent Spem in alium, a motet written with 40 unique parts (a typical work would have been written for four or six voices), this collection also includes a Magnificat setting, along with a generous selection of service music and anthems.

Western Wind Masses cover

During the Renaissance period, it became popular for composers to write “parody” Masses — Mass settings built around popular melodies of the time. “L’Homme armé” was one of the more popular songs to be given this treatment, and another was an English song called “The Western Wynde.” This recording features Masses based on this tune by three of the foremost composers of the Tudor period: John Taverner, Christopher Tye, and John Sheppard. It’s fascinating to hear the highly divergent ways these three great musicians treated the same basic source material.