THIRTEEN CENTURIES OF ENGLISH CHURCH MUSIC- An Introduction to a Great National Tradition. By W H Parry. First published in the Hinrichsen Edition Ltd., 1946. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003 and 2015.

Summary of Contents

Home | Contents | < Part I - early history | 15th cent | 16th cent | 17th centPart II- 18th cent on >

(Part II)


Early names | Music of the century

Music in its early stages was inevitably regarded as a science, and there was nothing of our modern "artistic" conception about it. It was a jigsaw puzzle of fitting notes together - a matter of mechanical ingenuity. Theorists were then more plentiful than composers, and passing reference must be made to JOHN OF SALISBURY, a close friend of Thomas a Becket, whose "De Arte Musices" as early as 1200 had shown a surprising knowledge of the polyphonic problems we have been discussing.

The first great executive name in English music however was JOHN DUNSTABLE, who died in 1458, and at this initial point in church music history it is clear that Britain possessed the leading composer in Europe. His greatness lay in the composing, chiefly in three parts, of fluent contrapuntal music, and in the avoidance of those harmonic clashes that were the bane of lesser polyphonic writers.

Listen to this mp3 music clip ... Listen to 'Veni Sancti Spiritus' by John Dunstable. Music details HERE.
You tube logo Watch
HERE, and watch the Agincourt Carol (You Tube - Herga Consort) HERE.

 We have little of his music available today, but pupils coming to him from the continent set in motion the great Netherlands schools of musical composition. Exchange of knowledge was very free in this age, and the profound influence Dunstable had on European music was returned about a century later. The continental composers advanced quickly, and one of the developments they brought back with them was the Motet (roughly what we would call an anthem).

The value of the motet was soon apparent to English musicians, for it gave a wide choice of texts for musical settings. The formal Mass was naturally a restricted medium- and tended to become tied to its plainsong origins, but the motet encouraged composers to make their music more widely and more personally expressive. The motet-form had found its way, into this country before the end of the fifteenth century.

Although the century was a quiet one after Dunstable's death, there were several composers whose names are still recalled, and - fortunately - whose music can still be heard. FAYRFAX, who died in 1521, had been a worthy contemporary of Dunstable, and later in the century came REDFORD, SHEPPARD, and CORNYSHE - all of whom helped to lay the foundations for the wonderful work of their successors. Their chief value lay in increased ease and fluency of part writing. Music was becoming less of an ingenious and laborious science.

You tube logo Watch Fayrfax's Magnificat (You Tube - Magnificat 'O bone Jesu') HERE,
and Listen to this mp3 music clip ... Listen to 'In Manus Tuas' by Sheppard, sung by the Tallis Scholars. Music details
You tube logo Watch Sheppard's 'The Lord's Prayer' HERE,
and the Passion, 'O Crux Ave' - Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi) HERE.


Some Music of the Fifteenth Century

Probably the earliest English anthems in use today are SHEPPARD'S Haste thee, O God, REDFORD'SRejoice in the Lord.(Novello.) Watch Redford's Rejoice in the Lord (You Tube - Het Groot Nederlands Jongerenkoor met Musica Sacra Chorus) HERE.

There is also a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis attributed to FAYRFAX.

Our practical acquaintance with DUNSTABLE should increase as a result of present-day research. Many fragments of music, both sacred and secular, are tentatively attributed to him, but obscurities in the writing of the manuscripts are a great hindrance.
Mp3 Listen to the Sixteen sing Robert Fayrfax's Sanctus. Music details HERE.
You tube logo WATCH Intrada sing Fayrfax's Eterne Laudis Lilium HERE.



General features | Taverner | Tye | Tallis | The Reformation - an interruption in tradition |  Richard Farrant | William Byrd | Music and recordings of the century

This century showed the first full flower of English music, and almost a score of fine composers of the period are heard today.  Advance now became rapid, helped additionally, by the introduction of music-printing about 1500.  

Some important General Features of the Age:

  1. The solving of polyphonic problems led to freedom of expression; music became more varied, and even descriptive.
  2. Secular music diverged from church music, and instrumental from vocal music.
  3. Sense of time and key developed: our diatonic scale was closely approached.
  4. As the purely secular forms developed, they influenced church music, giving it a new vitality.
  5. English music was again the leading influence on the Continent.

Among several fine composers at the beginning of the century was TAVERNER(died 1543) and names ever-growing in stature followed. His choice of the secular "O Western Wind," upon which to base a Mass, is a significant breach in tradition, showing the desire in composers to increase expression, individuality. and naturalness.

  Listen to the choir of New College, Oxford, sing Taverner's 'Gloria' from the West Wind Mass. Music details HERE, and You tube logo Watch HERE.


CHRISTOPHER TYE, born about 1500, was the "father" of a long line of great composers. His greatest personal contribution was in the development of the motet, where he showed distinct power of personal expression, and an aptness of music to the words. Like Taverner, he is notable for his use of secular folk-song as the canto for Masses. There is still something of the scientific and academic flavour about his work, but he can show much of the grace and ease of his renowned pupils whose names follow.

  Listen to the Tallis Scholars sing the Santus-Benedictus from Christopher Tye's Mass Euge Bone. Music details HERE and You tube logo watch all the mass HERE.


THOMAS TALLIS (1515-1585)

Tallis is the greatest composer to date.

His name is well known through the wide present use of his Versicles and Responses, in which he harmonized the traditional plainsong: also, of course, for his eternally-loved hymn-tune, "Tallis' Canon" "Glory to thee my God this night").

He wrote a "Song of Forty Parts" as a rejoiner to a Continental virtuoso-piece of thirty-six, and this shows, at any rate, the degree of facility that had been reached in polyphonic writing. Tallis is in few respects inferior to his more lauded contemporary PALESTRINA(died 1594) and a large number of his anthems and service-settings are still frequently heard. His works show surprising advances in variety and subtlety of expression, as well as great skill in the imitative treatment of the voice-parts.

Listen to the Tallis Scholars sing the Kyrie from Palestrina's 'Missa Papae Marcelli', and You tube logo watch (You Tube - Oxford Camerata) HERE. Music details HERE.


The Tallis Canon


Glory to Thee My God This Night. Thomas Tallis (Canon). Kings College, Cambridge.mp3  Listen to the choir of King's College, Cambridge sing the Hymn "Glory to Thee My God this Night." Tallis Canon. Music details HERE. Watch Libera perform this beautiful hymn HERE.


The Reformation-An Interruption in Tradition

In the midst of this great musical activity came Henry VIII's factions with the Pope, and their subsequent revolutionary effects on the English Church.

The three largest musical factors were:

  1. The dissolution of the monasteries (1536-9). This was an undoubted setback for music, curtailing the activities of many valuable musicians. King Henry's love of music tempered the blow however, for many, of the leading composers (e.g., Tallis, at Waltham Abbey) found a place in the Chapel Royal. The Cathedral music remained undisturbed.

  2. The first English Prayer Book. The Anglicising of the church services was of greater effect. The traditional Latin Masses had to be adapted to English or discarded -as too the earlier motets. Also composers now had the new problem of writing for the English tongue. In the long run, however, the change was an excellent thing: It led to a more "national" music. It brought the music nearer to the common people. English, with its more virile structure, had greater possibilities for rhythmic and expressive composition.

Composers of the century were well equal to the challenge and JOHN MERBECKE (died 1585): issued his Boke of Common Prayer Noted (i.e., set to music) within twelve months of the Prayer Book being issued. He used the ancient plainsong to the English words, and showed that the new simpler Communion Service could be successfully set in the English tongue. This work is still in wide use.  Listen to Merbecke's 'Creed'.

  1. The outcry for simplification by the Protestants. This third element of the Reformation appeared quite as disturbing as the others, but, fortunately, it proved that the Protestants were not to achieve such power as their Lutherian counterparts- who swept away previous styles for a simple note-for-syllable method. Tallis, Tye, and others, experimented with simple chordal music as opposed to the intricate older Masses, but the eventual result was that the old style kept its place- often tempered by a refreshing harmonic simplicity.

MP3 Listen to Tallis's 'Not everyone that saith unto me', sung by the Brabant Ensemble. Music details HERE.
You tube logo Watch Tallis's 'If You Love Me' (Cambridge Singers) HERE.

A very notable result of the Reformation's simplifying influence was the impetus given to Anglican chanting of the psalms and to the singing of hymns.

The hymn form was as old as plainsong itself but its use was not extensive until the present period. In its English form it grew from the singing of metrical psalms- psalms paraphrased to regular verse-patterns, thus allowing a single symmetrical tune to serve for all verses without the need of reciting notes.

Several famous collections of these hymns, led by that of Sternhold, Hopkins and Day, in 1562, achieved very widespread popularity. Strongly influenced by plainsong, they retained the melody in the tenor part- and it was almost a century later that the present form of hymn with the melody in the treble was finally established. In the matter of hymn singing the English Church has always been much indebted to non-conformist invention, and the Scottish influence beginning in this period is typical.

All People that on Earth do Dwell. Geneva Psalter: Ps 100. Kings College, Cambridge.mp3 Listen to the Huddersfield Choral Society, sing the hymn "All people that on Earth do Dwell." Sternhold, Hopkins & Day's Psalm 100, (the Old 100th). Music details HERE. View HERE. 

Anglican chanting was a development of the now harmonized (Gregorian) plainsong, and was more musically balanced in keeping with the trend of the times. It is from this period that the formal composition of chants began, as opposed to the mere adaptation of old plainsong melodies to Anglican use. The double chant, so common in all our churches today was essentially a product of the next century, as was our established system of "pointing." Our present method, although envisaged in Reformation times, was hindered in its development by a falling away of choral singing in the churches. It was, in fact, a cathedral product, and congregational psalm singing did not reach its present status in the normal church service until the nineteenth century.

MP3 Listen to the Latin plainchant hymn, Veni Creator chanted by Coral Vertice, Lisbon, Portugal. Music details HERE

Having briefly reviewed the chief effects and implications of the Reformation, we can now return to those composers whose work it immediately affected.



Farrant, another really great composer, showed the simplifying influence of the Reformation in his church compositions, and his anthems and service-settings are still a joy to hear in our churches. His work is more "modern" in flavour than his predecessors, lacking only some developments in modulation and metrical rhythm. What it lacks from our modern standards, however, gives it a charm and grace which modern composers rarely achieve.

MIDI Listen to the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, sing 'Lord for thy tender mercy's HERE, and WATCH this Cambridge Singers rendering HERE.

WILLIAM BYRD (1543-1623)

Unlike Tallis, his teacher – who was a complete specialist in church music – secular music was now gaining sway in the country.

He was certainly as great as any Continental contemporary, and showed great advances in the expressiveness and appropriateness of his music. Composition was now showing distinct signs of conveying deep personal feeling. Byrd, retaining the Catholic Faith, loved the old music, and devoted part of his time to the writing of Masses – although, of course, they could never be sung publicly. They are still available to us today, however.

 Listen to the choir of Westminster Cathedral sing Byrd's 'Sing Joyfully'. Music details HERE, and You tube logo watch the Haags Renaissance Kamerkoor rendering HERE.

At the close of the century it was secular music, especially the madrigal, which was the chief concern of composers' minds. MORLEY, DOWLAND, BEVAN and WEELKES are typical of this great secular school, although their church music is still frequently heard. They are all worthy companions of Byrd. THOMAS TOMKINS was notable for introducing solo parts into anthems, while JOHN BULL (a kind of minor Handel in his expansiveness and varied interests) showed distinct harmonic advances in his church compositions.

MIDI Listen to 'Let Thy Merciful Ears, O Lord' HERE. You tube logo WATCH Clare College Choir sing it HERE!


Some Music of the Sixteenth Century

Taverner: Christe Jesu Oxford
Tye: O Come, ye servants of the Lord Novello
  Sing to the Lord Novello
  Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G minor Novello
Farrant: Call to remembrance Oxford
  Kyrie Eleison in G minor Novello
Tallis: O nata lux Oxford
  Salvator mundi Oxford
  O Sacrum Convivium Stainer & Bell
Byrd: Ave Verum Oxford
  Sing joyfully unto God Novello
  Bow Thine ear, O Lord Novello
Dowland: Come, Holy Ghost Novello
Tomkins: Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in C Novello
Weelkes: Gloria in Excelsis Oxford
  O how amiable Oxford
King Henry VIII (or Munday): O Lord, the maker of all thing Novello

Some Recordings

Tye: O Come, ye servants of the Lord H.M.V. RG 8 You tube logo english setting You tube logo ... in the Latin
Byrd: Creed, from "Short Service" H.M.V. RG 4 You tube logo Magnificat (SC)    
Byrd: Sanctus, from Mass for five voices H.M.V. RG 11 You tube logo Sanctus (M5v) You tube logo ... Mass (all)



Composers of the age - Orlando Gibbons | The Commonwealth - a second interruption in tradition | The Restoration | Henry Purcell | Music and recordings of the century

With Italy, England now led the world in secular music, and composers were not so specifically interested in the church as they had been previously.

One great man however devoted much of his varied genius to church composition: 


Gibbons showed perfect adaptation of the old polyphonic style to the simplified Anglican service. As is frequently said, he stands out as his greater contemporary Shakespeare did in the field of letters.  He seized, coordinated, and exploited all the forces available to him, and gave a vigorous fresh imetus to religious music.

(He could not be musical "Shakespeare" of course, because for all its advancement music was still a limited and immature art. Shakespeare had the full resources of the English tongue at his command, and his range, depth, and craftsmanship have never been surpassed). Gibbons, nevertheless, was the climax of the whole church tradition, and very many of his anthems and service-settings have never been equalled in their particular medium.

Drop, Drop, Slow Tears. Orlando Gibbons Song 46. King's College, Cambridge.mp3 Listen to the choir of King's College, Cambridge, sing the hymn "Drop, Drop, Slow Tears". Orlando Gibbons' Song 46. Music details HERE.
You tube logo WATCH King's College Choir sing it HERE.

 Listen to the choir of Winchester Cathedral sing Gibbons' 'O Clap Your Hands.' Music details HERE.
You tube logo WATCH King's College Choir sing 'Hosanna to the Son of David' HERE.

BENJAMIN ROGERS and ADRIAN BATTEN were two very progressive composers carrying on the Gibbons tradition until the Commonwealth disrupted the whole art. They are notable for further advances in harmonic sense and phrase-structure, and for the use of bar-lines in the modern manner.

MIDI Listen to 'Haste Thee O Lord', by Adrian Batten Music details HERE.
Watch Truro Cathedral Choir sing Batten's O Sing Joyfully' HERE.

The musical art as a whole however had passed its present peak by the time of Gibbon's death.


The Commonwealth (1649-1660)-the second interruption in tradition

Cromwell's attitude to music was the recurrent one-in an extreme form-of simplification. Cromwell himself was a lover of music, even having his own official organist; and the wholesale destruction of music and organs is usually held to be the work of his more fanatical subordinates- in their hatred for "superstitious ornaments" and anything resembling "Popery." Apart from the material losses in music, the Commonwealth shattered the musical tradition. By the time of the Restoration most of the leaders had died, and no younger generation had been taught- the cathedral choir schools and the Chapel Royal were empty in this period. Consequently in 1660 the churches literally, did not know how to begin in restoring the old traditions.

The Restoration

Charles II had spent his exile in France, where his undisciplined and superficial character had tasted the showy splendours of Louis XIV's court: splendours that he was determined to equal in England. He straightway, sent a very promising young musician, PELHAM HUMPHREY, to study the gay secular French music- of which LULLY was now becoming the leader. Humphrey returned to lead a new burst of musical activity, which, with the old musical institutions fully restored and the enthusiasm of the king, developed rapidly.

You tube logo Watch Intrada perform Pelham Humphrey's 'Lift up your Heads, O ye Gates' in Moscow HERE.

(Pelham Humphrey's name is immortal in English music for what must be one of the simplest- yet very appropriate and artistic-compositions of all time, his single chant for the 150th Psalm. The new conditions and philosophy of this age led to a more widespread use of Anglican chanting, as well as to a strong and worthy growth of English hymn-writing).

As we may expect, however, the general reflection of all these historic events on church music was very considerable. The break in tradition had made the old polyphonic scholarship a thing of the past, and these strong secular influences gave church composition a new and less solemn flavour, as well as a far wider range of thought and expression. Altogether then, as with the previous severing of the tradition in Reformation days, the events proved more of a blessing than otherwise, especially as it appeared that Gibbons had exhausted the possibilities of the old polyphony. The new music was set firmly in the direction of our modern, more harmonic, compositions.

MICHAEL WISE (born 1648) and JOHN BLOW(born in 1649) became the leaders of the new school and their works are still frequently heard. The newer art is not mature yet however and they lack some of the freedom and facility of earlier writers, although showing advances in personal expression.


You tube logo Watch St Johns College Choir sing Wise's 'Prepare ye the Way' HERE.
Watch St Johns College Choir (?) sing Blow's 'I Was Glad' HERE.

 HENRY PURCELL (1658-1695)

Purcell, a pupil of Blow, fulfilled a similar function to the earlier Byrd and Gibbons in that he grasped-in his short life-all opportunities and possibilities of his time, and showed an amazing maturity in all known forms of musical composition. For this reason he is frequently compared with Mozart. It is fruitless to speculate, but one is tempted to ponder what may have happened if Purcell had lived a normal span – or for that matter if he had been born a century later with a Haydn to precede him.

His anthems, of which over fifty are still sung, showed a perfect fusion of the secular ayre (i.e., solo song) with the traditional motet. But it is in his great facility and variety of expression that his true greatness lies: stateliness, solemnity, poignancy, tenderness, all found their full place, as well as a livelier jollity which was more in keeping with the times. His magnificent Te Deum in D for voices, organ, strings, and trumpets, is a great monument in English music, and epitomises all that is best in Restoration composition. At the same time however, he could write such an anthem as Let my prayer come up into Thy Presence- tender, delicate, and pleading, with a wealth of harmonic beauty worthy of J. S. Bach: the work of a man who felt subtly and deeply, and who could express his feeling in music with complete freedom. These works, although not yet in our present-day idiom, are completely satisfying to the modern ear, and in their aims have never been more successfully accomplished.

 Listen to the King's Consort Choir sing Purcell's 'I will Sing Unto the Lord.' Music details HERE.
You tube logo Watch Kings College Choir sing Purcell's 'Hear my Prayer, O Lord' HERE.

The more one considers the extravagance, laxity, and shallow superficiality of the Restoration period the more amazing do Purcell's achievements become, both in sacred and secular music. But despite his mastery of the newer developments in harmony and rhythm, he was steeped in the scholarly old polyphonic tradition-a fact for which we must be profoundly thankful. 

A number of contemporaries, too, must not be forgotten in the glory, of a greater man, JEREMIAH CLARKE (died 1707) and WILLIAM CHILDE (died 1699), although, like Purcell, much attracted to secular writing, left some church music that is still performed and still cherished. 

You tube logo Watch Jeremiah Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary HERE, and watch Knabenchor Hannover sing Jeremiah Clarke's 'Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem' HERE.
Listen to the choir of Gonville and Caius College sing Child's 'Glory be to God on High' HERE.


Gibbons Te Deum from Service in F Novello
  Deliver us O Lord Novello
  Drop, drop, slow tears Stainer & Bell
  This is the record of John Oxford
Wise Awake, up, my glory Novello
Rogers Jubilate from Service in D Novello
Batten Haste thee, O God Oxford
Humphrey Hear, O Heavens Novello
Blow Sing we merrily unto God Novello
  Let Thy hand Novello
Purcell Rejoice in the Lord always Novello
  Remember not, O Lord Novello
  Thou knowest, Lord Novello
  Hear my prayer Novello
  Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G minor Novello
Clarke Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem Novello
Child O Blessed Jesu Novello

Some Recordings

Gibbons Three-fold Amen H.M.V. RG 13     You tube logo O clap your hands
Purcell Hear my Prayer H.M.V. RG 8 You tube logo Hear My Prayer    
Purcell Rejoice in the Lord always Columbia DB 500 You tube logo Rejoice ...    

Katapi Editor's comment The sheet music in the Library's PDF format are of far better quality than I was able to produce by scanning the music in the book itself.