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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 Middle and Low
Richard Taruskin

The musical cult of Mary reached its zenith in the place where the new-style motet began, in England. As usual, precious little pre-Reformation source material survived the sixteenth-century holy wars, but just as with the Old Hall manuscript at the front end of the century, a single enormous volume survives to tell us about British worship music at the back end. That book is the so-called Eton Choirbook, compiled for evensong (Vespers) services at Eton College during the reign of Henry VII (1485–1509), the first Tudor king of England, but containing a repertory that had been forming since Dunstable’s time. (A motet by Dunstable himself is listed in the index to the manuscript, but about half of the original contents, including Dunstable’s work, is lost.)

Eton College was founded by King Henry VI in 1440 to educate future government officials. It has long been famous as the largest of the so-called British “public schools,” which are in fact private schools that charge tuition and to which entry is gained by competitive examination. Eton was founded jointly with King’s College, Cambridge, and has ever since been a sort of preparatory school for King’s, which still reserves a certain number of scholarships each year for Etonians. Both schools were (and King’s still is) famous for their men-and-boys choirs.

Eton was officially franchised as “the College Roiall of our Ladie of Eton,” and its charter, addressed to the Virgin Mary herself, proclaims its dedication “to thy praise, thy glory, and thy worship” (ad laudem gloriam et cultum tuum). The school’s large choral endowment was specifically authorized by its statutes, as was the choir’s daily obligation to serenade the Blessed Virgin, as it were, with a polyphonic votive antiphon. Every evening, the statutes directed, the choir was to enter the chapel in formal procession, two by two, sing the Lord’s Prayer before the crucifix, and then proceed to the image of the Virgin, there to sing a Marian antiphon meliori modo quo sciverint, “as well as they know how.”

The Salve Regina excerpted from the Eton Choirbook in Ex. 13-6 was specifically composed for this very purpose. Its author, William Cornysh (d. 1523), ended his life as the head of the Chapel Royal under Henry VIII. He was one of a brilliant generation of late fifteenth-century English chaplain-musicians; some of the others were John Browne, Richard Davy, Walter Lambe, and Robert Wylkynson, to name only those few who are more copiously represented in the Eton Choirbook than is Cornysh himself. Their works now barely survive, and so they do not command historical reputations comparable to those of either their continental counterparts or their English predecessors. Since 1961, however, when Frank Llewelyn Harrison published a modern edition of the complete manuscript, it has been apparent that, as Harrison put it, “the Eton music, like the chapel for which it was created, is a monument to the art and craftsmanship of many minds united in the object of carrying out the founder’s vision of perpetual devotion.”1

Shown in Ex. 13-6a and b are the beginning and end of this exceedingly lengthy motet. That length is the product of two characteristically English factors. One, which may easily be appreciated from the music as printed, is a veritable jungle growth of melismatic proliferation. The parts shown are not even the most florid sections of the antiphon, and yet they exceed in melodic extravagance any other music illustrated in this book except for the Notre Dame organa with which the Eton music is still clearly vying, at a time when continental motets have taken another expressive tack. Perhaps that is why Tinctoris, having praised the English for providing the stimulus that transformed continental style, immediately took it all back by complaining that “the English continue to use one and the same style of composition [he means the lofty style, of course], which shows a wretched poverty of invention.”2

The English Keep Things HighThe English Keep Things High

ex. 13-6a William Cornysh, Salve Regina, beginning

A corollary to the melodic proliferation is the use of shorter note-values than anywhere (yet) on the continent. The boys in the famous Eton choir needed to be proper vocal athletes to negotiate their passagework in music like this, so that the official choral endowment of the college and the requirement that it be well staffed, amounted, then and now, to a kind of athletic scholarship for qualified students. And yet what the use of semiminims (sixteenth notes in transcription) accomplishes, in seeming paradox, is not the speeding up of the music, but just the opposite, its effective slowing down. That is because adding a new level of motion at the high end simply represents the limit of speed with a new symbol, increasing the spread of notated durations, while more of the change in actual note-lengths takes place at the opposite end, among the slow-moving “structural” voices.

The English Keep Things High

ex. 13-6b William Cornysh, Salve Regina, end

The main lengthener of English votive antiphons, however, was the exceptionally rich larding of the canonical texts with tropes. Any text that embodied prayer, and hence even potentially “votive” (like Kyries, for example), gave rise to another sort of jungle growth in the form of additional words. The concluding triple acclamation of the Salve Regina, shown in Ockeghem’s already highly melismatic setting in Ex. 13-2, is an especially indicative case, since the tropes on “O clemens,” and “O pia” so dwarf the canonical ejaculations. Cornysh set the text in this version:

O clemens:

Virgo clemens, Virgo pia,

Virgo dulcis, O Maria,

Exaudi preces omnium

Ad te pie clamantium.

O pia:

Funde preces tuo nato

Crucifixo, vulnerato,

Et pro nobis flagellato,

Spinis puncto, felle potato.

O dulcis Maria, salve.

O gentle one:

Clement Virgin, holy Virgin,

sweet Virgin, O Mary,

Hear the prayers of all

who cry to thee devoutly.

O holy one:

Pour forth our prayers to thy

crucified son, wounded

and scourged for us,

pierced with thorns, given gall to drink.

O sweet Mary, hail.

Imagine all of these words set with the same soaring melismatic abandon as the canonical ones, and it will be clear why the music of this motet could not be given here in its entirety. Even the concluding “Salve” is an interpolation, tacked on to give expressive meaning even to the final cadence, which now matches verbally the first grandly impressive “tutti” in the piece.

And that is yet another way in which the style of the Eton antiphons has been amplified: in terms of sheer sonority. The phenomenal upward extension of range in this music testifies to the Eton choirboys’ astounding proficiency. Their ample numbers are suggested not only by the augmented complement of voices—five parts being the Eton norm, with several pieces going to six or even more—but also by the frequency with which the parts are split into “gymels” or twinsongs (in the original meaning of the terms), for final cadential chords like the one in m. 10, for even greater richness of sound.

All that magnificence comes at a price. The Eton music is thoroughly “official,” collective, impersonal. It is institutional devotion par excellence. It makes no concession whatever to the “middling” tone that had long since begun to distinguish the continental votive motet and give it its compelling mien of personal urgency. That heightened expressivity came in part from a simplification of means. That simplification had originally come, as Tinctoris found it so ironical to recall, from England; but it was abandoned there as the English church became, under the Tudors, increasingly the partner and agent of royal authority.

And that especially necessitated the high style—a style that, as David Josephson, a historian of English music of the early Tudor period, describes it, “does not elicit the understanding, much less the participation, of the congregant. It is music of the High Church. It awes, overwhelms, and perhaps oddly, comforts, as did the ritual to which it was attached, and the buildings in which it was sung.”3 The comfort was the comfort that comes from knowing and believing in something bigger, more powerful, more lasting, more important than ourselves—something with which our presence at worship puts us in touch, and something to which we pray, as embodied and personified in Mary. But note that the prayers addressed to her in the trope to the Salve Regina are collective, not personal: they use the first person plural, never singular; and they are generalized, never particular, rendered on behalf of the community for the salvation of all and for the common good.

The very peak of the High Church style came early in the next century, when English and continental music contrasted even more starkly than they are doing in this chapter, owing to continued continental drift, in the name of personalization, toward simplicity of texture and clarity of declamation. By the time of the English Reformation (or rather, just before it), when we will sample them again, the English and continental styles, particularly in the Mass, will appear downright antithetical despite their common ancestry. That musical divergence reflects a larger divergence in ecclesiastical mores. The one cannot be understood historically without taking due account of the other.


(1) Frank L. Harrison, Music in Medieval Britain (2nd ed., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 328.

(2) Tinctoris, Proportionale musices, in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 195.

(3) David S. Josephson, John Taverner: Tudor Composer (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1979), p. 124.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 Middle and Low. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013003.xml