Feast of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and John Merbecke (November 21)   2 comments

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Above:  The Flag of England

Image in the Public Domain



English Composer and Organist

teacher and colleague of

WILLIAM BYRD (1543-JULY 4, 1623)

English Composer and Organist



English Composer, Organist, and Theologian

Also known as John Marbeck


The Episcopal Church commemorates the lives of these three composers, two of them lifelong Roman Catholics and the other a Calvinist at the end of his life, on November 21, one of two possible dates for the death of Thomas Tallis.  These facts demonstrate one of the most positive features of the calendar of saints of The Episcopal Church.  I refer to the fact that the main two qualifications for consideration for admission to it are being both Christian and dead.  Those are also the main qualifications for consideration for addition to my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days.

Thomas Tallis (born circa 1505) was the most important English composer prior to William Byrd (1543-1623), his student.  Both men were lifelong Roman Catholics who navigated the treacherous waters of English religious politics.  Most of the details of the early years of their lives have proven inaccessible to historians, unfortunately.

The account of their lives must therefore begin in the adulthood of each composer.

Tallis worked as an organist at various places.  In 1532 he was at Dover Priory.  Five years later his place of employment was St. Mary-at-Hill, London.  In 1540 Tallis received wages and rewards for services rendered upon the dissolution of Waltham Abbey, Essex.  From Essex he moved along to Canterbury then to the Chapel Royal, London.  Byrd, the organist at the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lincoln from 1563 to 1572, became co-organist (with Tallis) at the Chapel Royal in 1572.  Three years later Queen Elizabeth I granted them a monopoly on the importing of music paper as well as the printing, publishing, and sale of music.  Among the first volumes Tallis and Byrd published after receiving the monopoly was Cantiones Sacrae (1575), or Sacred Song, dedicated to the Virgin Queen.  The book contained 34 motets by Tallis and Byrd.

[Aside:  I consulted the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1968.  The article on Byrd informed me that Tallis composed 16 of the motets and Byrd the remaining 18.  However, the article of Tallis contradicted this, indicating an even 17-17 split.]

The Tallis motets in Cantiones Sacrae (1575) were the only ones of his published during his lifetime.

Tallis composed both instrumental and vocal works.  His catalog included the following:

  1. Mass for Four Voices;
  2. Magnificat (I);
  3. Magnificat (II);
  4. The Lamentations of Jeremiah (I);
  5. The Lamentations of Jeremiah (II);
  6. Salve Intemerata;
  7. Miserere Nostri;
  8. Spem in Alium, arguably his magnum opus, with its 40 parts;
  9. Settings of services from The Book of Common Prayer (1549),
  10. A series of anthems, including the great If Ye Love Me; and
  11. Nine tunes (1567) for the Psalter by Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker (in office 1559-1575).

Especially notable among the Psalm tunes were the third (the basis for the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams), eighth (Tallis’s Canon), and ninth (Tallis’s Ordinal) ones.

Tallis, who married his wife Joan in 1552, spent his final years in Greenwich.  She died in 1589.

Byrd and his family relocated to Harlington, Middlesex, 1577.  Juliana, his first wife, died nine years later.  Afterward the composer increased the pace of the publication of his own music, including:

  1. Psalmes, Sonnets, and Songs of Sadnes and Pietie (1588);
  2. Songs of Sundrie Natures (1589);
  3. Cantiones Sacrae (II) (1589);
  4. Cantiones Sacrae (III) (1591);
  5. Three Settings of the Mass, including the Mass for Four Voices and the Mass for Five Voices;
  6. Gradualia (I) (1605);
  7. Gradualia (II) (1607); and
  8. Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets (1611).

Byrd remained eventually.  In 1592 or 1593 he and his family moved to Stondon Massey, Essex.  He spent the rest of his life there.

Byrd was the greatest composer of the Shakespearean age.  He wrote for every instrument (except the lute) available, composed the best English organ music of the time, and played an important role in the development of music for the viol consort.  He was also crucial to the development of the freely composed fantasia.

John Merbecke, or, as the 1968 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica listed him, John Marbeck, entered the world circa 1505.  Details of his early life have faded from the historical record, unfortunately.  By 1531 he came to live at Windsor; there he remained for the rest of his life.  He became the organist at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, no later than 1541 and served in that capacity until the following year.  He endured a heresy trial and conviction on that charge in 1543 and nearly burned at the stake the following year.  Fortunately, Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, saved his life.  Nevertheless, authorities did seize and burn Merbecke’s “great work,” a concordance of the Bible.  He resumed work on that project and published the result in 1550, however.  That year he also published The Book of Common Prayer Noted, a musical setting of The Book of Common Prayer (1549).  Merbecke’s work fell into a long period of disuse after the publication of The Book of Common Prayer (1552), but Tractarians revived his settings of the 1549 Prayer Book in the 1800s.

Few of Merbecke’s compositions have survived, unfortunately.  Aside from The Book of Common Prayer Noted (1550), three works have survived fully.  There is a Mass, Missa Per Arma Justiael; as well as a carol, the title of which in Latin translates into English as “A Virgin and a Mother.”  There are also two antiphons, Ave Dei Patris Filia and Domine Jesu Christe, one of which is complete and the other of which lacks a tenor part.

Merbecke was also a theological and devotional writer.  Based on his writings from the last decade of his life, he died a Calvinist in 1585.

Fortunately, one can find performances of many of the works I have mentioned in this post, as well as other compositions of these composers, easily and legally on the Internet.  Listening to them will enrich one’s spiritual life.






O God most glorious, whose praises are sung night and day by your saints and angels in heaven:

We give you thanks for William Byrd, John Merbecke, and Thomas Tallis,

whose music has enriched the praise that your Church offers you here on earth.

Grant, we pray, to all who are touched by the power of music such glimpses of eternity

that we may be made ready to join your saints in heaven and behold your glory unveiled for evermore;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

1 Chronicles 15:16, 19-25, 28

Psalm 47

Revelation 15:1-4

John 15:1-8

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 693


2 responses to “Feast of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and John Merbecke (November 21)

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  1. Pingback: Feast of Orlando Gibbons (June 5) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

  2. Pingback: Feast of Arthur Henry Mann (November 17) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

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