John Taverner was the leading English composer of sacred music in the early 16th century. His Masses and motets exemplify the English preference for long melismas, full textures, and cantus-firmus structures (where the chant is sung or played slowly in a single voice while the other voices swirl around it in polyphony), which, after the Reformation, would be out of vogue.
But he was pre-eminent among English musicians of his day, enriching and transforming the English florid style by drawing on its best qualities, as well as employing some continental techniques, despite England’s tendency toward musical isolationism. He produced simple works of great poise and refinement.
Near the end of his life, Taverner wrote a piece for viol consort, called In Nomine and based on a chant of the same name. Over the next century, over 200 pieces would be written in imitation of his piece. Taverner’s original was from his Sanctus movement in the Mass he wrote called Gloria tibi trininitas. With Catholic Masses no longer being held, he recycled his own work by transcribing it for instruments. The In Nomine became one of the most popular genres of English music for viol consort, and stayed popular until Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) setting of it at the end of the 17th century. By then, no one remembered that it was John Taverner who started it all.
Little is known about the man himself. He was probably born in Tattershall, Lincolnshire, England. According to one of his own letters, he was related to the Yerboughs, a well-to-do Lincolnshire family. There are no records of him until 1524, when he was a clerk at the collegiate church of Tattershall. That same year, he traveled from Tattershall Lincolnshire to the Church of St. Botolph in nearby Boston as a guest singer.
In 1526, Taverner was appointed by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (c1473-1530) to be instructor of the choristers of Cardinal College (now Christ Church), Oxford, and around 1530, he became a lay clerk and probably an instructor of the choristers at the parish church of St. Botolph, also by invitation of Cardinal Wolsey.
In 1528, he was embroiled in an outbreak of Lutheran heresy at Cardinal College, although there is no evidence that his views were seriously in conflict with Catholicism. He was reprimanded but escaped punishment because he was “but a musician” and couldn’t know better. Wolsey fell from favor in 1529, and Taverner left Oxford in 1530. He probably returned to Boston, Lincolnshire, where he owned a small amount of land.
He had no further musical appointments, nor can any of his known works be dated to after that time, so he might have stopped composing altogether. In the early 1530s, he was a lay clerk at the Guild of St. Mary at a Boston (England) parish church, which was disbanded in the late 1530s. By 1537, he was a member of the Guild of Corpus Christi in Boston, and he’d retired from full-time employment as a church musician. He was treasurer of the organization from 1541-1543.
Some say that he worked as an agent of Thomas Cromwell (c1485-1540), assisting in the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541, although there are questions about whether this can be true.
He was appointed alderman of Boston in 1545, shortly before his death.
His works were mostly vocal, and included eight Masses, some Mass fragments, three Magnificats, 22 motets, and four votive antiphons (songs to Mary or other saints), three Office pieces, three secular pieces, and a few consort pieces and fragmentary secular part songs, all of which date from the 1520s.
One of his best-known works is the motet Dum Transisset Sabbatum. His best known Mass is based on a popular song called The Western Wynde (John Sheppard and Christopher Tye later wrote Masses based on the same song). Taverner’s Mass is unusual for the period because the theme tune appears in each of the six parts except the alto at various times.
Each movement (Gloria, Credo, Sanctus-Benedictus, andAgnus Dei) in his Masses have about the same length, often achieved by putting the same number of repetitions of thematic material in each. (In The Western Wynde, for example, the theme is repeated nine times in each section.) For those movements with less text, Taverner uses long winding melodies on single syllables to make up the duration difference.
Three of his Masses use the cantus firmus technique, which puts a slow version of a chant into the tenor line. The other voice parts wiggle polyphonically all around the steady, regular chant melody (for more about polyphony, check out my blog post called Chords versus Polyphony). Another technique is used in his Mass Mater Christi, which, because it’s based on his own motet of the same name, is called a “parody” Mass. The Western Wynde is based on a secular tune and is in a less expansive, more Lutheran style of music than the others.
His Mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas started a certain style of instrumental music called the “In Nomine.” Although the Mass itself is in six parts, some virtuosic sections reduce the number of parts, presumably so that it could be done by soloists. It was something that he did in several of his Masses. But then he went one step further: he took the In Nomine chunk out of the Benedictus movement and made a viol consort piece out of it. Other composers came to write works modeled on this pattern, until, a hundred years later, there were more than 200 of them..
Taverner’s Magnificats are the pinnacle of the development of the early Tudor Mass. They’re written for six voices, use cantus firmus, and show a resourceful use of contrasted voice-groupings and full-choir passages to duck and weave in a magical way.
The Magnificats are large-scale, florid works in the English tradition, also using a cantus firmus. Two of his antiphons (Mater Christi sanctissima and Christe Jesu, pastor bone) show Josquin des Prez’s influence. (Taverner, along with Christopher Tye and Thomas Tallis, resisted the Continental fashion of imitation and ostinato—repeating a rhythmic or melodic gesture—so this clear influence is unusual.)
His motets include a number of votive antiphons, which also divide into festal and simpler categories, and alternative pieces including responds. The responds have the appropriate plainsong running through the polyphonic sections in equal note values—cantus firmus again. A particularly fine example is the five-part Dum transisset I, with its points of imitation and smoothly curving vocal lines. (That piece was my first introduction to Taverner’s music. Yum!)
Despite his productivity, he had only one piece in the Mulliner (compiled 1545-1570) book, which was a collection of all the greats from that era, including Thomas Tallis and Christopher Tye.
An opera was written about him in the 1960s and 1970s, called Taverner, by Peter Maxwell Davies (1934- ). The 20th-century composer with the same name (born 1944) has claimed to be his direct descendant.
He probably died in Boston, Licolnshire. He’s buried under the bell tower at the Boston Parish church.
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