Notes on Composers of the Period...

This is a developing site. We shall be adding further composers to this section and including an increasing volume of comments and information about their music as well as mere biographies. (We apologise for the fact that, owing to the indisposition of the webmaster, new work on the site had been impossible for some months: we hope now to continue steadily expanding this section.)

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Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656)

The family of Thomas Tomkins came from Cornwall, but in 1565, the future composer’s father (also named Thomas) took up an appointment as a vicar choral (and subsequently master) at St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, where the younger Thomas was born.

Probably in 1586, but certainly by 1594, Thomas senior had moved the family to Gloucester. It is generally thought that Thomas junior became a Chapel Royal chorister and studied with William Byrd - though the details are subject to some conjecture. (The Chapel Royal was not a single, specific building, but rather a body of musicians in the service of the monarch and liable to travel as duty required.) He was later affiliated to Magdalen College, Oxford. By 1596 he had become organist and master of the choristers of Worcester Cathedral, a position he held until the closure of the cathedral under Cromwell. In 1621 he was appointed a gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, and had probably been a ‘gentleman extraordinary’ for some time before that. For years he made the journey between London and Worcester, in fulfilment of his duties to both institutions.

On May 24th 1597, Thomas Tomkins married Alice Patrick, the widow of his predecessor at the cathedral. They moved into a house on College Green, which was both their home and the Song School. (There is today no blue plaque to commemorate the fact that one of this country’s finest and most conscientious musical servants lived and worked there for many years.)

In 1612, a new organ for the cathedral was commissioned from the foremost builder of the period, Thomas Dallam - a major event in the life of both the cathedral and of its organist. Meanwhile Tomkins had acquired a seniority at the Chapel Royal which gave him prime responsibility for the music at both the funeral of King James and the coronation of his successor. The Court at last proposed some real recognition of his status and service in 1628, when he was offered the post of Composer-in-Ordinary: sadly, however, Tomkins was the innocent victim of shabby confusion, and the offer was revoked.

During the turbulent years leading up to the Civil War, marked by political disputes at both cathedral and national levels, Thomas and Alice Tomkins remained well-respected Worcester citizens, noted for their charity. It is not clear exactly when and how Tomkins detached himself from London, but it is possible that his last visit there was in 1639/40. He continued to carry out duties at Worcester, playing regularly for services; and he was sufficiently respected to be called upon for advice about a proposed new organ at Gloucester. Tomkins’ personal life, however, suffered a major blow when his wife, Alice, died in January 1642. In the same year, the Civil War began: the life of Tomkins was never to be the same again. An attempt was made to destroy the Dallam organ, and although that particular piece of vandalism was halted, wider assaults continued – Tomkins’ own house suffering considerable damage. During this period, he married again, to the widow Martha Browne, the mother of one of his choristers.

Tomkins’ most famous piece of keyboard music, ‘A Sad Pavan for these distracted times’, is his musical response to the ultimate defeat - in the execution of the King - of the cause with which he undoubtedly sympathised strongly. Although he was able to return to his house on College Green, he suffered increasing hardship. The forced cessation of cathedral services (and the final dismantling of the organ) deprived him of both income and purpose. His stoical response was to struggle as best he could with advancing old age and financial difficulties (making a point of continuing to set aside something for the poor), and to continue - quite remarkably - to compose keyboard music. If he could not compose for the cathedral organ, he could still compose: in the shadow of his now-closed cathedral, he wrote music much of which he might have played at the services he was no longer allowed to conduct.

Relief from physical hardship and much of the emotional strain finally came when his son Nathaniel married Isabella Ffolliot, who had inherited the manor at Martin Hussingtree, a village a few miles northeast of the city of Worcester. Thomas Tomkins spent the final years of his life there, from 1654 until his death in early June 1656. He is buried in the churchyard at Martin Hussingtree, but the plot is unmarked.

Thomas Tomkins was, arguably, the culminating musical genius of the English Renaissance. Like Bach, he was primarily a great consolidator, who perpetuated - often in perfect form - the styles of an earlier generation. But that is not all. He is often called a conservative composer, and so he was: the times in which he lived must have made him highly sceptical of change. Yet he was by no means lacking in individuality and - again like Bach - was not incapable of employing some aspects of contemporary style.


John Redford (d1547)

Nothing is known for certain about Redford’s life before 1534: by that time he was one of the vicars-choral at St Paul’s Cathedral, and it is a justifiable assumption that he acted as organist there; by the time he died, he had become almoner and Master of the Choristers. He was a writer as well as a musician, working within the tradition that the boys of St Paul’s were effectively professional actors and well as singers.

Redford might be considered the father of English keyboard music. He is the earliest musician to have left a substantial body of music which was specifically composed (composed, that is, in a written form) and so had the potential to survive (rather than improvised and so existing only during the occasion of its performance). It is also notable that his music was written in a distinctively keyboard style (rather than merely making use of a keyboard to repeat vocal style). He took the traditional use of the organ for alternatim (the organ alternating with the singers in performing parts of the liturgy) and appears to have developed considerably the style of music involved – the extension, decoration, and composition of accompanying parts to a plainsong melody (the cantus firmus). Redford is noted for a preference for writing in two or three parts, rather than four. He developed the technique known as writing 'with a mean'. In The Mulliner Book there are ten compositions by Redford in which that phrase features in the title: these are three-part works in which the 'mean' is normally an ingeniously imitative middle voice.

Anyone new to the music of this period, and wishing to sample Redford, might be advised to open The Mulliner Book (available from Stainer and Bell) at page 52 and play through piece 74, Redford's 'Eterne rerum conditor': a comparatively easy piece to play, and at once enjoyable and interesting for its manipulation of immediately appealing melodic and rhythmic motifs.


John Bull (c.1562-1628)

There is some doubt about both the date and place of John Bull's birth: the year was probably 1562 (possibly a year later) and the place was apparently Radnorshire. He was a choirboy at Hereford Cathedral and was also one of the Children of the Chapel Royal; he studied under John Blitheman.

He became organist at Hereford Cathedral in 1582 and subsequently was also master of the choristers. Like other key musicians of the period, he was also active at the Chapel Royal: he was not able to divide his time between London and his cathedral city as successfully and peaceably as Tomkins clearly did, however, and there are records of disputes with the cathedral authorities.

He was associated with both Oxford and Cambridge, though some of the details are mysterious; but he was certainly known as ‘Doctor Bull’. He was badly off financially for some time, but achieved some success in petitioning for help from the Queen. On her recommendation, he was appointed Reader in music at Gresham College, London; but disputes once again followed. His movements are unclear until the date of the Queen’s funeral, at which he was officially involved as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. There is clear evidence of service to King James and Prince Henry – interspersed with the loss of his Readership (owing to a hasty and obviously unplanned marriage) and mysterious foreign travel and unsatisfactory, if adventurous, attempts at organ-building. He was music teacher to Princess Elizabeth and composed music for her wedding. In 1613, however, scandal evidently considered, in some quarters at least, to be serious caused Bull to leave England, and he never returned. He was employed by Archduke Albert in the Netherlands, where he appears to have had friends – possibly including Peter Philips. But King James’ vindictive anger pursued him, and Bull was dismissed by the archduke, though still supported by him. Bull attempted to defend himself, and maintained that religion was the underlying reason for his exile.

Bull was employed as organist at Antwerp Cathedral, and worked in other subsidiary capacities; he lived in the cathedral precincts until his death. He was buried there on 15th March 1628.


Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625)

Gibbons was born at Oxford, where he was baptised on Christmas day of 1583, the youngest son of William Gibbons, a town musician. Orlando was a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge – under the mastership of his brother Edward; he was subsequently a sizar at the same college. By May 1603 he had become a musician in the Chapel Royal, an association that lasted until his death in office. He became a Gentleman of the Chapel two years later. He was particularly noted as a performer on keyboard instruments and by 1615 had become one of the two Chapel Royal organists.

He married Elizabeth Patten, the daughter of a Chapel official. They lived in Westminster, where seven children of the marriage were baptised.

Gibbons appears to have enjoyed considerable success within his own lifetime. He was one of only three composers – although considerably junior to the other two, Byrd and Bull - to contribute to Parthenia, the collection of keyboard music in honour of Princess Elizabeth. In addition to his Chapel Royal status, he subsequently became one of the Prince of Wales’ musicians, and virginalist to the royal privy chamber. He also took over duties at Westminster Abbey. After the retirement of Byrd and the escape abroad of Bull, Gibbons seems to have been regarded at the foremost keyboardist of his day. He died suddenly on Whitsunday of 1625, whilst at Canterbury with the Chapel Royal.

He left a considerably body of music, choral and instrumental. It is often described as ‘serious’ – though, like all labels, that is only partly accurate, as one does not have to look far among Gibbons' pieces to see a certain wit. However, it is doubtless true to say that his keyboard music in particular is in the tradition of Tallis, characterised by dignity, rather than in the more overtly virtuosic style particularly exemplified by Bull.


Peter Philips (1560/1-1628)

Like John Bull, though perhaps for rather different reasons, Peter Philips was an exile for most of his adult life. He began his career as a choirboy at St Paul's, and may well have been a pupil of William Byrd. In 1582 he fled to the continent, so that he could practice freely as a Roman Catholic. After staying briefly at the English College in Douai, he went on to Rome and obtained refuge at the English College there, where he acted as organist. In 1585 Philips entered the service of Lord Thomas Paget, travelling with him in Italy, France, Spain, and finally Flanders. After Paget's death, Philips settled in Antwerp, where he taught, married, and obtained new patronage. He almost certainly visited Sweelinck in Amsterdam: it is clear that each composer held the other in high esteem. He was briefly imprisoned pending investigation into an alleged plot, but subsequently exonerated and released. He clearly enjoyed considerable contemporary success, an unusually large number of works - for the period - being published in his lifetime. He became a member of the household of Archduke Albert in 1597 and was one of the organists of his chapel for the rest of his life. Having been widowed soon after marriage, Philips took orders and in 1609 was ordained a priest.

Despite his residence abroad, Philips followed the English tradition of accomplishment in a variety of forms - keyboard, instrumental, and well as secular and sacred vocal music. The Italian influence - specifically the conservative Roman traditions - remained strong. Philips' music is characterised by a combination of extravagance and conservatism. His best-known pieces are those written for keyboard in a predominantly English style: the Pavana Dolorosa compares with Tomkins' 'Sad Paven'.


Thomas Preston (d after 1559)

The dates of Preston’s birth and death are not known, and some facts about his life are doubtful. He may have been organist at Magdalene College, and possibly at Trinity College, Cambridge; records indicate that he was organist and master of the choristers at St George’s, Windsor. It is possible that he was also a playwright: several other musicians of the period (including John Redford) were involved with drama, which was a normal choir-school activity.

Apart from one disputed piece, his music is entirely liturgical; he favoured a four-part texture, and often made use of notably complex rhythms. He appears to have been something of an innovator, developing a virtuosic keyboard style that instigates an important tradition, one which culminates in Bull and which clearly influenced Tomkins.

The best modern source is Early Tudor Organ Music II: Music for the Mass, ed. D. Stevens, Number 10 in the Early English Church Music series (London: Stainer and Bell, 1969).


Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585)

The year of Tallis’ birth is a matter of speculation, and estimates vary. But records indicate that by 1531 he was receiving a salary as organist of Dover Priory. He held subsequent appointments (whether as singer or organist) at the church of St Mary-at-Hill, London; Waltham Abbey, Essex; Canterbury Cathedral; and, probably in 1543, became a full member of the Chapel Royal. He had probably been a court musician in some capacity before that date, and he certainly remain one for the rest of his life, serving Henry, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. Tallis was granted favours by both queens. It is possible that he had some responsibility for teaching and training the Chapel boys, and so may have taught the young William Byrd. Certainly he and Byrd later became colleagues and collaborators in music publishing. He married in about 1552, but appears to have had no children. His home during this period was in Greenwich. He died in November (20th or 23rd) of 1585. There is some doubt about Tallis’ position in the religious controversies of the period: the balance of the evidence suggests that he continued to favour Catholicism, but nevertheless served Anglican monarchs and their church with apparent willingness and considerable success.

Like Tomkins, Tallis lived a long and productive life, during which he appears to have enjoyed success and to have won the respect of his masters as well as his colleague. He was, with his colleague William Byrd, one of the twin giants of Renaissance music in England; but can also be claimed as one of the most influential and important figures in the whole of English music. His output is substantial in both senses. Unlike Tomkins, however, his works are not so widely spread across the available categories of consort, keyboard, and choir; sacred and secular. His largest and greatest contribution was to sacred choral music: within that sphere, he wrote in – and developed - all the possible forms and styles of the period. There are just a few consort pieces and secular songs Only a small proportion of the keyboard music that he must have written has survived – some sixteen or seventeen pieces.

The Mulliner Book (available from Stainer and Bell) is an important source for Tallis' surviving keyboards works. Arguably, his music is characterised above all by grandeur and dignity - a style which is found again in Gibbons, and which is reflected in aspects of, and works by, Tomkins. Someone new to Tallis and seeking a short and accessible introductory piece might look at his 'Iste confessor' (Mulliner No 106, page 77): with its gently swaying rhythms and culminatory flourish, it demonstrates that dignity and appeal are by no means incompatible.


John Blitheman (c.1525-1591)

Blitheman (there is some slight doubt about his first name) was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal from before or during 1558 until he died. He also appears to have held various appointments at Christ Church, Oxford. He taught John Bull.

His work largely consist of liturgical (or quasi-liturgical) keyboard music. It is characterised by the presentation of plainchant melodies, with rhythmically interesting accompaniments and embellishments. Sometimes (notably, for example, in some of the variations on 'Gloria tibi Trinitas) the accompaniment to a cantus firmus is florid and technically quite challenging - as is similarly the case with some pieces by Preston. This aspect of Blitheman and Preston's compositions can be seen as instigating a tradition which Bull, Blitheman's pupil, took to its heights.

A number of Blitheman's compositions are found in The Mulliner Book (available from Stainer and Bell). An interesting and most attractive piece that might form an introduction is No 49 'Eterne rerum conditor [i]': it employs appealing rhythms and ends with a flourish in the right hand. Pieces such as this can easily dispel the false rumour that Tudor liturgical music is necessarily 'dry'.


Thomas Weelkes (?1576-1623)

The date of Weelkes’ birth is not known, but evidence suggests a date in the mid-1570s. By the end of 1598, he had been appointed organist of Winchester College and had already composed madrigals. He moved on to Chichester Cathedral at some point in 1601 or 1602. His life at that time appears to have been successful: he received an Oxford degree in 1602, was married to Elizabeth Sandham, a merchant’s daughter, in 1603, continued to publish madrigals, and by 1608 was describing himself as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal – he was, perhaps, a Gentleman Extraordinary. However, there is some evidence of a decline in his professional life beginning in 1609, and subsequently in his personal behaviour: the first charge of public drunkenness was recorded against him in 1613, and three years later he was described as a noted drunkard. In January 1617, Weelkes was dismissed from his posts at the cathedral, retaining only his Sherborne clerkship. He continued to be admonished for coming drunk into the quire, cursing and swearing; he was accused of profaning divine service – and it was noted that, despite all protests, his behaviour was ‘rather worse than better’. In September 1622, his wife died. Although he had apparently been re-employed as organist at the cathedral by this point, his attendance was very irregular, and much of his time was being spent in London. He was buried there on November 31st 1623.

Weelkes is known primarily as a particularly fine madrigalist, and also as a composer of some noted sacred pieces: he wrote an anthem setting the words 'When David heard...' that compares interestingly with Tomkins' version. His very small surviving corpus of keyboard pieces deserves to be better known: the first of his voluntaries is a beautiful piece with a simple dignity - its tone poised between calmness and melancholy. It might have been composed by a mind as free of sin and strife as Tomkins' and completely belies its composer's personal turbulence.


The picture to the left shows a polygonal Italian virginals made by Alan Gotto, based on the 'Queen Elizabeth Virginals' in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The image is used by kind permission.

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Italian virginals made by Alan Gotto.