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Composer Biography: Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521)

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Robert Fayrfax was an English composer whose works bridge the divide between the Eton Choirbook composers (c1500) and John Taverner (1495-1545), and was considered the most prominent musician for both Henry VII and Henry VIII. His works document a gradual decline in florid writing, compared to those of the Eton composers, with less brilliance of vocal scoring and rhythmic complexity, headed toward the simplicity and syllabic nature of the post-Reformation sensibilities. Fayrfax could display technical and notational intricacy, as in the Mass he submitted for his Cambridge Doctorate, but typically, his style shows discrimination and restraint. His Masses use cantus firmus technique (meaning one part played or sang the chant melody in a long sustained way while the other voices swirled around it in polyphony) in a variety of ways, that might be considered complex or playful, much like Mozart would later do with variations on a theme. For instance, he used plainsong as ostinato (a repeated melodic or rhythmic figure) that is sung backward, inverted, or both backward and inverted simultaneously.

Private Life

Fayrfax was born in Deeping Gate, Lincolnshire (England) in 1464. I didn’t find any information about his childhood, and the next time his name appears in the records, he was already at court. He found a patron in Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509) and was Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by 1497. As part of his earnings, he was granted chaplaincy of the Free Chapel at Snodhill Castle, although this was later given to Robert Cowper (dates unavailable), another Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Fayrfax was organist of St. Alban’s Abbey from 1498 to 1502 and he became a member of the Fraternity of St. Nicholas in 1502. At 37 years old, he received his Bachelor in Music in 1501. He earned a Doctorate in Music in 1504 at Cambridge for his Mass setting of O quam glorifica. and was incorporated as the very first Doctor of Music at Oxford in 1511. From 1509 until his death, Fayrfax was the senior lay clerk at Oxford. Henry VIII granted Fayrfax the annuity of a farm in Hampshire and later made him a Poor Knight of Windsor (with a lifetime award of 12 pennies a day) in 1514. He possessed two ecclesiastical livings (payment for services rendered to the church), which he later surrendered (I don’t know why). He also received payments for tutoring choirboys and reimbursements for clothes that he needed for state occasions. He received many payments from Henry VIII for collections of his compositions and music manuscripts between 1516 and 1520. As a member of the Chapel Royal, Fayrfax went with Henry VIII to visit the Burgundian Chapel of Margaret of Austria in 1513 and also to the Field of the Cloth of Gold to meet the French Chapel of Francis I in 1520. In fact, he led the Chapel Royal in that state visit. (For more on this trip, see On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player.)


Fayrax is Important for his development of the Mass, and he’s known to have written six. All except one are based on a chant cantus firmus in the tenor (which means that the tenor voice sings an elongated and slow version of the chant while the other parts wiggle around in polyphony). His music is less elaborate than that of Cornysh and Taverner and uses more restrained melodic lines. Most of the works in the Eton book are more extravagant than those by Fayrfax. And although he named his pieces for them, he seldom based his works on the chants by the same name, bucking the tide of the style at the time. This means that he was setting the text to original music rather than twiddling with the chant. He also uses imitation, where one part does something and then another part imitates it, either exactly or in gesture, which was a Continental style that wasn’t really popular in England until William Byrd (1543-1623). His work was considered to be the leading influence on composers of the day, including John Taverner (1495- 1545) and Thomas Tallis. The Fayrfax Book (collected c1500) reflected the repertoire of Henry VII (seven) and contained only English music, largely by the composers of the Eton Choirbook (collected 1500-1505). His work was also in the Eton book, along with William Cornysh the Younger (1496-1523). The list of surviving works by Fayrfax include six Masses, two Magnificats, ten votive antiphons (songs in praise of Mary or another saint), nine part songs (some secular), and two instrumental pieces. His Mass O bone Jesu, commissioned by Lady Margaret Beaufort (Henry VII’s mother), is considered the first “parody” Mass, which means that secular music, in several voices, is converted to liturgical purposes by providing a sacred text. Robert Fayrfax died in 1521. He was buried at St. Albans.


“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994. “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985. “A Dictionary of Early Music from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1982. “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.