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Composer Biography: Christopher Tye (c1500-c1572)

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Christopher Tye had part, along with John Taverner (1495-1545) and Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), in shaping English music in a way that made it possible for more famous composers, such as William Byrd (1543-1623) and Henry Purcell (1659-1695) to be as remarkable as they were. You’ve probably heard of both of them. This is the story of an unsung hero—or at least seldom sung. Tye was born at Doddington-cum-Marche on the Isle of Ely sometime between 1500 and 1505. Not much is known about his family, but we do know some of his whereabouts. He was at King’s College, Cambridge, between 1508 and 1545. Considering his extreme youth when he arrived, he was probably a choirboy there. He also earned a Bachelor’s degree at King’s College in 1536 and became a lay clerk in 1537. Tye officially began his adult musical career sometime after 1525 as an organist. By 1543, he was choirmaster at Ely cathedral and became organist there in 1559. Next, he earned a Doctor of Music degree at King’s College in 1545. Because one wasn’t enough, he earned another doctorate at Oxford in 1548. Tye was introduced at Henry VIII’s court in the late 1540s and he became Prince Edward’s music tutor. It’s possible that he was also Mary and Elizabeth’s tutor. There were a lot of heavy hitters at court already, including William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, John Merbecke, and John Sheppard. Tye stayed at Ely through the reign of Queen Mary (from 1553 until 1558) despite his apparent Protestant leanings. Mary probably had some affection for him if he had been her tutor. The title page of Tye’s Actes of the Apostles (London 1553) describes him as one of the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, but it isn’t known when he joined that band of auspicious musicians. (For more on the Chapel Royal, see my blog On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player.) He was well-respected among his peers and among the royals. King Edward VI reportedly quoted his father, Henry VIII, as saying that “England hath one God, one truth, one doctor hath for music’s art, and that is Doctor Tye, admired for skill in music’s harmony.” Two or three years after Elizabeth became queen, Tye’s Protestant piety led him to become a rector, although people said that he was a terrible preacher. Unlike John Taverner, who renounced music as part of his Calvinist leanings, Tye thought that music helped reinforce the message of the scripture to the listener. He is given at least partial credit for inventing the musical form known as the anthem. (For more about anthems, you’ll want to read my blog on William Byrd.) Matching his actions to his ideals, Tye set the first 14 chapters of the New Testament book “Acts of the Apostles” to music. Although the music he wrote was good, he was a terrible librettist. In fact, even Tye said that his text was “full base.” Nevertheless, he meant for the piece to be sung accompanied by a lute, and said that if people couldn’t sing it themselves, they could enjoy listening to the music and learn from it. He never finished the whole Bible, but he saw music as an excellent method for interacting with scripture. In the 1520s, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1527) wrote a letter to Henry VIII (1491-1547) in which he said that a “song should not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, a syllable for every note,” and saying that the new English music should take this form. Taverner was so disgusted that he gave up composition altogether. But Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) and Tye continued to write music for the new Protestant services, although these works were not as technically interesting or artistic as the Latin music had been. Both composers continued writing secular Latin motets, but no more Masses. There are 22 surviving works from Tye, but only 11 are complete. There are three Masses, about 18 Latin motets, 15 English anthems and other English settings, and around 30 consort works (for families of instruments. (For more on instrument families, see my blog post Instrument Biography: The Vielle.) Of his consort works, there were more than 20 individual five-voice In Nomines (My post Composer Biography: John Taverner covers the tasty morsel called In Nomines). His antiphon Ave caput Christi dates from c1530-1535. His five-voice Mass (published in the Peterhouse Partbooks—a collection of music manuscripts in set of 17 books from the 1540s and earlier) and his Mass Western Wynde” may date from before 1540. Tye’s Latin church music (Masses, antiphons, Magnificats, etc.) were probably written during Henry VIII’s reign and shows the influence of Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521) and his contemporaries. The 15 surviving English anthems probably date from Edward VI’s reign (1547-1553). Tye’s Latin Psalm settings Omnes gentes, plaudit and Cantate Domno, and his six-voice Mass Euge bone, all deftly use the Continental motet techniques and probably date from Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-1558). Tye’s Latin music also includes psalm settings and Masses, notably one set on The Western Wynde, a folk song of the time, and also set by John Taverner and John Sheppard. He composed works in English for the Church of England, including services and anthems, and his hymn tune “Winchester Old” is probably based on a piece from his own Acts of the Apostles. Tye occasionally used the Continental style of repetition to the point of his music sounding a bit routine. But the Actes of the Apostles (1553), which was meant for instruction and recreational use, features metrical texts and simple four-voice music that’s rather nice. He dedicated it to King Edward VI. Tye also used imitation (A Continental style where each voice repeats a certain musical gesture, sometimes in a different place in the scale, and sometimes identically) more consistently than Tallis in his anthems. But it wasn’t until William Byrd that the first great music for Anglican worship was produced. Tallis and Tye were models for Byrd. Tye died in 1572 or 1573, apparently still musically active under Elizabeth I. Anthony Wood (a 17 th century antiquary) relates that Tye was a peevish and moody fellow, especially as he aged. Tye played the organ in Elizabeth’s chapel, but it didn’t always please her. She occasionally sent the verger to tell him that he played out of tune. He responded that her ears were out of tune.


“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin books, Harmondsworth, 1973. “The New Grove High Renaissance Masters,” by Jeremy Noble, Gustave Reese, Lewis Lockwood, James Haar, Jessie Ann Owens, Joseph Kerman, Robert Stevenson. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1984. “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985. “The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.