Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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Composer Biography: William Cornysh the Younger (1468-1523)

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

(also Cornyshe or Cornish) William Cornysh is another one of those English composers who went from Henry VII’s court to Henry VIII’s, along with Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521), John Taverner (1495-1545), John Lloyd (d.1523). Both monarchs were terrifically interested in music, and it’s possible that Young William was there with his father, who was also a musician at court. But William the Elder died sometime before 1502, so they were only together at Henry VII’s Chapel Royal. Not much is known about either man, but it’s probable that they lived in Greenwich, because Young William was born there in 1468. I didn’t find all the facts, but Young William got himself into a bit of trouble in 1504 over a political pamphlet. He was imprisoned, and in the only surviving poem from him, written from Fleet Prison, he claims to have been wrongly accused and convicted by false information. Although it isn’t known exactly what the conviction was for, it can’t have been too serious, because he soon returned to favor and to court. At court from 1495, Young William then became Master of the Children at the Chapel Royal, a post he held until his death. As the Master, he was responsible for the musical and dramatic entertainments at court and during important diplomatic events. He would have composed some of them and directed all of them. Between 1490 and 1502, scholars at Eton College collected as much great music as they could find and published it in what is known as the Eton Choirbook. Cornysh is represented there, but it could have been his father, as both were alive and merrily producing music at the time. William the Elder died in 1502. Cornysh made the first of his many journeys to the Continent as part of Henry VIII’s retinue to France in 1513 for the Battle of the Spurs (which Henry won), where he met with the Burgundian Queen of Austria, Margaret, and her Chapel Royal. He also went to the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520), along with Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521) and John Taverner (1495-1545), and other important musicians of the day. It must have been an amazing festival, considering the big names in attendance, which included the French Chapel Royal of Francis I. He traveled at the discretion of the Henry VIII, and visited the courts of France and the Holy Roman Empire. Presumably, he gathered information about what was going on musically on his journeys, although, until nearly the end of the 16 th century and Willam Byrd (1543-1623), England had a strong history of musical isolationism. As I mentioned, Cornysh was well represented in the Eton Choirbook. The style ranges from a flamboyant Stabat mater to a simple Ave Maria Mater Dei and it’s possible that his father wrote in one style and he wrote in the other. But it’s also possible that he wrote all of them, as his part songs are similarly versatile. For example, his Yow and I and Amyas is simple and chordal (for more on what I mean by this, check out my post on Chords versus Polyphony), and A robyn is a three-part canon (like a round) that incorporates elements of a pre-existing melody. Other works in the Eton Choirbook include Salve Regina, Gaude virgo mater Christi, and a lost piece, Gaude flore virginali. Another collection, the Caius Choirbook (c1518-1520), contains a Magnificat attributed to Cornysh. His later work, in five parts, displays the extreme vocal exuberance of the Eton Choirbook composers, although preserved in the Caius Choirbook. Other sources refer to lost works—three Masses, another Stabat mater, another Magnificat, and a motet. He produced secular vocal music in the form of three part songs, and the English anthem Woefully arrayed. There is a single three-part instrumental work based on the steps of the hexachord (for more on hexachords, see my post on Odo of Cluny) and its mutations Fa la sol, and another untitled piece. The secular works are found in the Fayrfax Book, yet another collection, copied in 1501. Cornysh wrote music for court pageants, one of which was performed at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and a number of secular songs preserved in the Henry VIII Manuscript (yet another collection. You can read more about both the event and the manuscript in my post On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player). If all the earlier sacred music is from the same fellow as the later secular music, he exhibited some breadth. Although his works don’t display the same simplifying approach of Fayrfax’s work—they’re in a more old- fashioned and florid style—they adopt a proto-madrigalian manner (more Continental in style) and have a particularly developed sense of tonal movement. They also use appoggiatura (notes strictly for ornamentation) in melodic shapes to bring out the stresses in the Latin phrases. He uses words and sounds (like “O”) to attract attention to the words. Other composers would have had the voices suddenly line up into unison, but Cornysh used the premise of “whoever is moving has the attention” and popped the attention from voice to voice with sounds and rhythm. Clever, eh? He died at Hylden, Kent in 1523, just before Henry VIII began to woo Anne Boleyn and the whole cloth of British life changed.


“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1895. “The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994. “A Dictionary of Early Music, from Troubadour to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxdord University Press, New York, 1981. “Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978. “Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.