The music of the period has been called Sixteenth Century music, Elizabethan music, Tudor music. Much of the most mature work was written when the sixteenth century, Elizabeth and the Tudors were all of the past. The general title is unimportant: the music with which we have chiefly to deal was nearly all written between the appearance of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and the death of Gibbons in 1625. Publications begin to crowd after 1570 or so, and this date can fitly mark the beginning of the mature period.
We must first briefly review the music written before 1550. Church music in 1500 was of two kinds, the traditional plainsong, much corrupted, and composed music. The plainsong, apart from a few commonly known melodies such as the music to the Nicene Creed and Te Deum, was too ornate to be sung by a congregation; indeed, almost all the singing was delegated to the choir. In the monastic offices the choir would consist of boys and professional singing-men together with such of the monks who could, by dint of long hearing them, sing the psalms and canticles; in the mass the body of professional singers performed the plainsong versions of the ornate propers - introit, gradual, offertory and communion - and supplemented these with elaborate settings in harmony for the other parts of the service. Of this latter music little has remained in the repertory save perhaps a few resurrected faux-bourdons as commonly used at the time in alternate verses of the canticles. The reason is that such music, no doubt reckoned artistically worthy in its day, is seen by us through the glass of the later achievements of the century, and suffers by comparison. Seen thus, it is stiff and formal both harmonically and emotionally, over-elaborate and lacking in the consummate ease of the best later work. These are, of course, the normal faults of immaturity. Even Taverner, often flattered by the history books and probably a great man, had failed to retain his place in the repertory by the end of the century. His 'Western Wynde' mass, founded in the customary manner on a secular theme of that name, has seldom been thought worthy to be tackled by any subsequent choirmaster. As much may be said of such men - one is tempted to call them 'names' - as Cornysshe, Sampson, Fayrfax, Henry VIII. It may well be that, had not the century later produced such a flowering of fine work, the music of these men would have been found of use in the service; the fact remains, however, that no one ever seems interested enough to give them a hearing during an actual service. If, as some think, they are unrecognised geniuses, they were geniuses born at a time when technique was changing and only pioneers were needed. No coherent judgment of their work is, however, possible until they get a hearing.
[Christopher Tye (c. 1500c. 1572-3.) Mus.B. Cambridge 1536, Mus.D. Cambridge 1545. In 1537 he was lay-clerk at King's College, Cambridge, and was, in 1541 or 1542, appointed Magister Choristarum at Ely Cathedral. He was possibly music master to Henry VIII's children. In 1560 he was ordained deacon and later priested, holding various livings until his death. The Acts was his only published work. Works other than those mentioned seem to have been printed but are seldom if ever performed.]
Perhaps because he was a pioneer rather than a genius (at least on the showing of his available works) the first composer to be admitted to the modern repertory is Tye who shows signs of throwing off the stiff rhythmic and contrapuntal shackles of the fifteenth century, attaining a new ease in simple music. Of his music only one slight work receives any notice, though it is possible that there are other works that might usefully be recovered. Like other composers of his time he was concerned with the religious questions of the day, and his reformer spirit led him to busy himself with translating, after the manner of Marot, into English verses the Acts of the Apostles, not, perhaps, an inspiring theme for true poetry. The fourteen chapters which he thus versified he partly set to simple music in a completely new style, showing that he wished to be sung not only by highly trained choirs. Unlike his contemporaries he often sets his melody in the treble, leaving the tenor to become merely one of the three accompanying voices. For studied and effective simplicity the sober march of Laudate nomen Domini (O come, ye servants of the Lord)' [The published text is an arrangement by a modern editor.] shows a sure touch with its delightful lapse into easy imitation in the middle of each strain, a method followed in the 'fugued' psalm-tunes of a hundred years later; and, even if its block harmony shows a certain lack of free movement, it makes a worthy beginning to the English repertory and can be sung by any village choir today. Tye died too early to be numbered among those great men whose works were produced after 1570, but his easy style pointed the way to the technical felicities of his followers and no doubt earned him the affectionate title of 'the father of the anthem'. The also delightful Lord, for thy tender mercy's sake, attributed by the Church Music Society's edition to 'the school of Dr Tye' and by Fellowes to Hilton, follows a similar formula and shows a similar cheerful lack of emotional feeling.
Dates and biographical details being scanty it is tentative work trying to trace a consecutive evolution in the music of the period. It is, however, possible to contrast Tye and early Tallis with the later Byrd and so find that the emotional content has become more human, while the harmonic and rhythmic range have widened. That was the direct result of setting English words and can thus be attributed on the one hand to the appearance of the Book of Common Prayer and on the other to the general literary awakening. Marlowe, the University Wits, Shakespeare, the Prayer Book, the English Bible, all played their part as much as the individual efforts of the composers in producing the spate of great music - church and secular - after 1570. Music had become the handmaid of words and thus acquired a new freedom. As Elizabeth grew older the reformer outlook of her subjects became more prominent; the minds of composers and churchmen alike turned from the liturgy proper to the engaging excitement of the newly translated Bible. When the chained bibles were set up in every church in England by order of the king in 1558, so keen was the interest that people in St Paul's would gather round a reader even during service time. That interest never flagged; indeed, it has never lessened in England where the Bible and pulpit have often been more the focal point of churchgoing than the altar. Englishmen of the sixteenth century made a glorious discovery - their own language. The thrill of it has run like a life-giving stream from the heaped pastures of Spenser and Shakespeare to the trim beauty of Shaw and the lavish wordy panoramas of Joyce. English composers are but men and their muse has come speaking English. So the anthems of Byrd have a human warmth fired by the vivid vernacular which is lacking in the more chill perfection of Tallis' Latin works and the emotionless simplicity of Tye. So much development it is possible to see between 1550 and 1625. It showed itself in the composition technique of the period and, as we should expect, Byrd who plumbed the emotional and spiritual depths was the most adventurous experimenter. There is a world of difference between the joy in musical technique of Fayrfax and the joy in expression of Byrd and Gibbons.
Latin left the composer to find his own rhythms with the usual result that he ceased to be forced into rhythmic invention. His mind tended to run in set channels. But English with its elasticity, its frequent harshnesses, its tripping dactyls, its feminine endings, made him think afresh and trim his music to the rhythmic richness of the language. It gave him really less melodic rein but compensated with rhythmic stimulation. Thus was the unique and subtle rhythmic counterpoint of the period forced upon him. Squareness, the balance of four-plus-four would not work; instead, we find Byrd writing with an engaging lilt and a felicitous over-balance:
which springs from the rhythm of the text. And if we turn from the rhythmic flow of the words to their sound, we notice that the beauty of English words is lavish but often harsh. Sibilants, palatals, clusters of consonants crunch from the lips and tongue and spoil the singable vowels; but they are the expression of the vision behind the words which caught the composer aflame. Palestrina set his sonorous, vowely liturgies in a cool, placid style well fitted to the broad Latin phrases. A handful of stock progressions sufficed him to 'bring all heaven before our eyes', a rarified, unearthly vision, the vision of a man looking upwards away from men. Even in the non-liturgical, emotional Stabat Mater the warmth is there but the even, harmonic flow of the music is never disturbed. The harsh, lovely English tongue turned the thought of our own composers inwards into their own hearts. They loved God but loved their neighbour more. It was the protestant view, the view of a man with his feet firmly planted in this world. Thus if Palestrina had one mood, Byrd and Gibbons had a hundred - all the human gamut. Their harmony reflected their outlook. No handful of chords would do for them; the voices clamoured against one another rhythmically, harmonically, and led them to music which, had he heard it, would have made Palestrina stop his ears. Each voice must sing as it felt and let the rest go hang. The Elizabethan choir was, in fact, a body of individualists; the resultant texture of their music shows all the roughness, all the rich treasures which individualism brings with it.