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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 16 The End of Perfection
Richard Taruskin
Church and State

fig. 16-4 (a) Henry VIII, portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger (1540). (b) Elizabeth I bestriding the map of England, portrait by Marcus Gheerhaerts (1592).

The English reformation was totally unlike the German and Swiss ones whose musical effects we have yet to consider. It was led from above by the monarch; it was as much a political as a religious commotion, and it carried a portentous tinge of nationalism. Its origin was a quarrel between King Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII, who had refused Henry’s request for annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Katharine of Aragon, for failing to produce a male heir to the throne. (Behind the pope’s ostensibly ecclesiastical judgment there lurked another political power: Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, Katharine’s nephew, whose troops had already sacked Rome once, taking Clement prisoner, and threatened to do it again.) When Henry divorced Katharine in defiance of the church, the pope excommunicated him, and the king retaliated in 1534 with the Act of Supremacy, which made the king the head of the Church of England.

This act of treason against the church hierarchy polarized English opinion (to put it as mildly as possible) and had to be enforced by violence. The author of Utopia, Sir Thomas More, who had served Henry as Lord Chancellor of the realm, was the most notorious victim: he was imprisoned and beheaded in 1535 for his principled refusal to recognize Henry’s religious authority and was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a martyr on the four hundredth anniversary of his execution. The English monasteries, loyal to the traditional church, were forcibly dissolved beginning in 1540.

Musical repercussions were inevitable—and decisive. They were not quite immediate, however. Henry himself was an enthusiastic music lover. He played the organ, lute, and virginals (a small harpsichord-like instrument), and even composed in a modest way; thirty-four small compositions attributed to him survive, all but one in a single manuscript. The inventory of his property at his death in 1547 listed a fabulous instrumentarium for the use of his “waits” (household musicians): 56 keyboard instruments, nineteen bowed strings, 31 plucked strings, and upwards of 240 wind instruments of all descriptions.15 He took great pride in the virtuosity of his chapel choir (as we know from the amazed reaction of an Italian diplomat, quoted in the previous chapter). We have already had occasion to admire the music that choir performed (see the works of Cornysh, Henry’s own court composer, and Taverner, quoted in Exx. 13-6 and 15-8). The activities of this choir did not cease when the Church of Rome gave way to the Church of England, nor did the performance of the Latin liturgy. Except for its repudiation of the pope’s authority, the newly established national church did not at first differ much, doctrinally or liturgically, from the “universal” one.

It was during the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, who became king at the age of nine and died six years later, that the Church of England began to show real signs of doctrinal Protestantism. Henry’s loyal Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, now asserted his own half-Lutheran, half-Calvinist objections to the Catholic liturgy, chief among them being his widely shared antagonism toward the idolatrous worship of the Virgin Mary, the very aspect of Catholic worship that, as we know, had produced some of the greatest glories of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century polyphony, and especially in England. It was at Cranmer’s instigation, in conjunction with Henry’s suppression of the monasteries, that the notorious search-and-destroy missions against books of “Popish ditties”—particularly Marian votive antiphons—took place, thanks to which so little early English polyphony survives. Under Edward, organs were destroyed as well; English organ-building did not resume until the seventeenth century.

Cranmer also shared the hostility of many Catholic churchmen toward the impious overelaboration of polyphonic music at the expense of the holy word, no doubt sharing Erasmus’s sarcastic view that the attention of English monks was entirely taken up with music. He collaborated with a zealously anti-Catholic composer named John Merbecke (d. ca. 1585) on a new English liturgy, with texts translated into the vernacular and with strict limits placed on the style of the music. The Anglican ideal was an ascetic polyphonic style more radically stripped down than anything ever imagined by the Council of Trent. “Anglican chant” consists of chordal harmonizations of traditional chant, but a traditional chant that had itself been rigorously purged of all melismas.

Cranmer and Merbecke’s first strike against the so-called Sarum (or Salisbury Cathedral) rite, the gorgeous Catholic repertoire of the English church that Henry took such delight in showing off, came in 1544, with a book of stripped-down litanies in English. This was truly drab stuff, and Henry wouldn’t buy it. Under Henry’s weak successor, the real development and stabilization of the Anglican liturgy got under way.

The first collection of metrical psalms in English appeared in 1548, but no music attended it. The need for new music became urgent that same year, though, when Edward VI, or rather Cranmer acting in the boy-king’s name, issued an injunction finally abolishing the Sarum rite. English choirs, the statute read, “shall from henceforth sing or say no Anthems of our lady or other saints but only of our lord, and them not in Latin but choosing out the best and most sounding to Christian religion they shall turn the same into English setting thereunto a plain and distinct note, for every syllable one.”16

Church and State

fig. 16-5 Title page of Cantiones, published by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd in 1575.

In 1549, Cranmer published the first Book of Common Prayer, a comprehensive translation of the liturgy. It was accompanied by the Act of Uniformity, making its use mandatory, and consequently making the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass a criminal act, grounds for persecution. Merbecke finally followed up in 1550 with The Booke of Common Praier Noted, providing the only legal liturgical music for the Church of England. These publications, while quickly superseded, set the tone for the Anglican musical reform.

Not that a style founded on “plain and distinct note, for every syllable one” necessarily precluded good music, or even masterworks. Consider the hymn O nata lux de lumine as set by Thomas Tallis (1505–85), the greatest composer in England after the death of Taverner, who was organist at the chapel royal all through the period of reform (Ex. 16-15). Though fantastically adept at the most grandiose and intricate polyphonic designs—he celebrated the fortieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth I with a truly elephantine motet, Spem in alium, for forty independent voice parts deployed in eight five-part choirs!—Tallis also developed a sideline in Reformation austerity that he continued to cultivate even after the height of stringency had passed.

Church and State

ex. 16-15 Thomas Tallis, O nata lux de lumine, mm. 1-9

O nata lux, published in 1575 but (to judge by its archaic original notation) composed a good deal earlier, fulfills every condition set forth in the Edwardian statute of 1548 save that of language (no longer insisted upon by the 1570s). Yet it remains one of Tallis’s most impressive works for the subtlety of rhythm and (particularly) harmony with which he was able to compensate the absence of contrapuntal interest. Let this hymn, rather than one by Merbecke or another equally gifted, represent the officially approved music of the Anglican reformation. It shows as clearly as the Missa Papae Marcelli that coercion can be met with creative imaginativeness, and that artists can find opportunity in constraint. The music of the Anglican church did not develop in any more smooth or orderly a fashion than did the church itself. After Edward things took a dialectical turn, to put it a little euphemistically. The boy-king was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), Henry VIII’s daughter by Katharine of Aragon. She was a loyal Catholic and undid the whole reform except for the confiscation of monastic property. What was instituted through violence had to be suppressed through violence. Cranmer was burned at the stake. Protestantism again became an illegal heresy. Mary died in 1558 after a reign even shorter than Edward’s, but one that brought the country to the brink of a religious civil war.

Church and State

fig. 16-6 “Persecutions Carried Out against Catholics by Protestant Calvinists in England,” sixteenth century.

It was in this atmosphere that Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth I ascended the throne. She achieved a compromise—a synthesis, so to speak, known as the Elizabethan Settlement—between the antithetical religious factions, that by letting English politics simmer down allowed the nation’s economy to surge, its international prestige to bloom, and the arts to flourish. One of her first decisions was to reinstitute the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity, but with far less anti-Catholic doctrinal and liturgical zealotry. “Mariolatry” and “popish ditties” were no longer actively persecuted, and the Book of Common Prayer was actually translated, for the use of colleges, into Latin (as Liber Precum publicarum). While the Catholic Church remained legally abolished, recusants were not to be subject to legal reprisal, at least for a while.

Gradually, however, tolerance of recusants was withdrawn, and penal measures against them reinstituted, following numerous rebellious plots and attempts on the childless Elizabeth’s life that would have placed Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots), a loyal Catholic, on the throne. Pope Pius V and his successor Gregory XIII (both of them major patrons of Palestrina) also did their best to destabilize Elizabeth, the former by formally (and superfluously) excommunicating her in 1570; and the latter by authorizing a clandestine army of English Jesuit missionaries, who began to infiltrate the British isles from their base, the English college at Douai in the north of France, beginning in 1580. This gave rise to new reprisals, including grisly public executions. Matters reached a head (so to speak) with the decapitation of Mary Stuart herself in 1587, after which life could be easily as dangerous for Catholics in England as it had been under Edward.


(15) London, British Library, MS Harley 1419; transcribed in F. W. Galpin, Old English Instruments of Music (London, 1910), pp. 292–94.

(16) Lincoln Cathedral Injunctions, 14 April 1548; quoted in Peter Le Huray, Music and the Reformation in England, 1549–1660 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 9.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 16 The End of Perfection. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016009.xml