Monday, December 21, 2009

A music lesson from the Phillips' family

On October 31, our church had a Reformation Day party and our family gave the following presentation on the role that music played during the English reformation. Following is a copy of the script I wrote, together with some illustrations our children helped to create.


We want to share with you a bit about how the Protestant reformation affected music in England. First Matthew is going to explain about the important role that the church played in 16th century music


In the 16th century, musicians, including composers, were servants. They were regarded as craftsmen, not artists in the modern sense.

This meant that a musician’s livelihood, and therefore his ability to make music, depended entirely on pleasing his patrons.

The biggest patron was the church itself. This meant that developments in the church would inevitably have musical consequences.

Music was an important part of the Roman Catholic mass. Just as the metaphysics of the mass became increasingly complicated in the late middle ages, so the music that accompanied the mass began to get more and more elaborate and complex.

Furthermore, just as the mass was denied to the laity, who were only given access to the bread but not the wine, so the music of the mass was inaccessible to ordinary people who couldn’t understand the Latin text.


As an example of what Matthew has been talking about, we’re going to play you a Marian antiphon by the English composer John Browne. It is called “O Mary the mother of the savior.” It was written to be sung during the mass sometime during the late 15th or early 16th century.
Some things to notice in this work are:

· The complex rhythms
· Eight separate vocal parts
· Constantly changing vocal textures
· Melisma, which means one syllable of text spanning an entire group of notes. Not infrequently, individual syllables carry such lengthy melodic lines that consecutive syllables in a word become widely separated; the words thus lose their identity and significance and so cease to have any coherent meaning.

Play Example 1 (around two minutes of it)


King Henry the 8th was king of England from 1509 - 1547. He was part of the Tudor family.
King Henry was a bad king. He wasted the country’s money. He also didn’t have very much self-control.

Not only was King Henry a bad king, but he was also a bad husband. He even had two of his wives’ heads chopped off. A husband should never chop off his wife’s head.

When King Henry wanted to get rid of his first wife, he divorced her. In order to do this, Henry had to first get the Pope’s permission. When the pope (pictured right) wouldn’t agree, King Henry broke away from the Roman Catholic church and started the church of England. This happened in 1534 with the Act of Supremacy.


Henry’s break from the Roman Catholic church is usually considered the beginning of the English reformation, even though England, Scotland and Wales had a long tradition of Protestantism going back to the early Celtic church. However, this was the beginning of an established Protestant church in England.

Bluff King Hal was full of beans
He married half a dozen queens
For three called Kate they cried the banns
And one called Jane, and a couple of Annes.

The first he asked to share his reign
Was Kate of Aragon, straight from Spain
But when his love for her was spent
He got a divorce, and out she went.

Anne Boleyn was his second wife.
He swore to cherish her all his life,
But seeing a third, he wished instead
He chopped off poor Anne Boleyn’s head.

He married the next afternoon
Jane Seymour, which was rather soon,
But after one year as his bride
She crept into her bed and died.

Anne of Cleves was number four.
Her portrait thrilled him to the core,
But when he met her face to face
Another royal divorce took place.

Catherine Howard, number five,
Billed and cooed to keep alive.
But one day Henry felt depressed,
The executioner did the rest.

Sixth and last was Catherine Parr
Sixth and last and luckiest far
For this time it was Henry who
Hopped the twig, and a good job too.

Timothy: Although Henry was a bad king and had selfish reasons for starting the Church of England, there were many godly men in England at the time and the Lord used their work to make the English reformation into something glorious. One of the most godly men was Henry’s Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer.

Among the many changes that came about because of the reformation was something called The Act of Uniformity which required one uniform prayer book in the English language to be used in the church. This was very important because for a long time worship in the English churches had only been conducted in Latin.

To meet this new need, the archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, put together the Book of Common Prayer. The prayer book had everyone at church, not merely the ministers, involved in the worship of God. It achieved this by putting worship in the English language and also by having a lot of congregational participation in the service.

This meant that people no longer come to church just as spectators while the priests and the musicians got on with the business of worshiping God. The people were now included in the worship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Naturally, this shift would have musical consequences. New music would be required with a text that could be understood by everybody. This aspect of reform did not come about until the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, who assumed his father’s throne in 1547.

Daddy: Thomas Tallis was an English composer who lived from 1505 to 1585. As a craftsman in the service of the church, Tallis produced whatever music was required of him and was prepared to adapt to the different religious and political circumstances. Because his career spanned four different English monarchs, he had quite a lot of practice adjusting his musical style to the theological demands of the moment.

The first ten years of Tallis’ career occurred before the English reformation. During these years Tallis was employed by different monastic establishments. Here is an example of the type of piece he composed during this period, although the precise date of this piece is unknown. It is a hymn to Mary called “Rejoice in the glorious mother of God.” Notice how it is similar to the Browne extract that we already played for you.

Play Example 2

Now we want you to compare that to a piece that Tallis wrote after England had become Protestant.

The piece you are about hear was written by Thomas Tallis during the reign of Edward VI. The words come from the gospel of John where Jesus said “If you love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever.”


When listening to this piece, notice that it is in the English language rather than Latin.
Notice that the parts are simple enough so that the words are understandable. Although there is some limited imitation, the work is has a simplicity about it that represents the Protestant emphasis.

Both Archbishop Cranmer and Edward VI are said to have asked musicians to only have one note per syllable, so that the meaning of the words wouldn’t be overshadowed by the music. Five years before the Act of Uniformity, archbishop Cranmer had written to the king saying, “in my opinion, the song that should be made thereunto would not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, for every syllable a note, so that it may be sung distinctly and devoutly.” Although Tallis doesn’t quite keep to that, you can see that he is trying to be a good servant to those who are paying him.

Play Example 3


Thomas Tallis lived to see the English reformation overturned in England by Bloody Mary. This gave him a chance to write more complex music for the Latin mass

Because Tallis was such a masterful composer, he could make beautiful music that glorified God no matter who was on the throne and no matter what language he was writing in.

Tallis’ music is very valuable to us because the changes in his style parallel the developments of the English reformation. It is also valuable because it shows that simplicity can be just as beautiful as complexity. It also reminds us that the worship of God is something that includes everyone – men, woman and children – not just experts..

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