Thursday, October 18, 2012

John Taverner, RIP

The English composer John Taverner died on October 18, 1545 in Boston, England. According to this site, he was born in 1490 in South Lincolnshire, England :

John Taverner is considered the most important figure in English music of his time. His compositions exist in about 30 manuscripts that were copied over about a 100-year period, beginning around the late 1520s. It is believed that many of his works were lost; a good many others survive but in partial form, such as the Masses Mater Christi and Small Devotion, and the smaller-scale antiphons Ave Maria and Sub tuum praesidium. It is generally more accepted that Taverner's three (six-part) Festal Masses (Corona spinea, Gloria tibi Trinitas, and O Michael) rank with the greatest works of their kind up to that time. Taverner's contribution to the genre of the votive antiphon was also considerable, with Ave Dei patris filia, Gaude plurimum, and O splendor gloriae being among the most important.

Taverner was born most likely in south Lincolnshire, perhaps in the vicinity of Boston or Tattershall, around 1490. Nothing is known of his parents or early years. Some of his compositions -- Ave Dei patris filia and Gaude plurimum -- were discovered among manuscripts of Henry VIII, and there is evidence to suggest that they were written for the Chapel Royal. There is also ample reason to believe these compositions date from 1515-1525, the period during which some therefore believe he lived in London. It may thus be speculated with some good reason that the composer spent some time in London in the early part of the sixteenth century.

In 1524, Taverner became a clerk-fellow of the collegiate church choir of Tattershall. In November 1526, he took on the post of Master of Choristers at Cardinal College, Oxford. The composer wrote a number of works during his Oxford years, including his three Festal Masses, the Mass Sancti Wilhelmi, and Jesu Christe pastor, a votive antiphon. In fact, during this period and the Tattershall years that immediately preceded it -- that is, the period from 1520-1530 -- it is believed that Taverner composed the bulk of his music.

In 1527, Taverner became entangled in a scandal involving the dissident religionist John Clark, who was proselytizing for Lutheran theological ideas. It is believed that Taverner was ultimately exonerated of all charges, but he left the College in April 1530 anyway, owing to its decline following the English Reformation.

Taverner's whereabouts and activities over the next six years are unknown. He is mentioned among the new members of 1537 for the Corpus Christi Gild in Boston, Lincolnshire. The Gild listed the composer as having a wife when he was admitted to membership. Her name was Rose Parrowe, a widow from Boston, with two daughters.

In 1538, Taverner took on the position as agent for the Crown when he began working for Thomas Cromwell. Many music historians have depicted the composer's role during this period as that of a fanatic bent on the demise of various religious congregations and orders, owing to their loyalty to Rome. It appears, however, that Taverner was a compassionate advocate on behalf of those targeted by Cromwell to surrender possessions to the Monarchy. In January 1539, he wrote Cromwell a letter beseeching him to forego further efforts at forcing divestiture of the holdings of many of the religious houses in Boston. In 1540, he resigned from his duties as a Crown agent. The following year, Taverner became treasurer of the Corpus Christi Gild, remaining in that role for at least three years, after which Gild records ceased. In 1545, Boston became a borough, and Taverner served as an alderman there.

The details and interpretations of his activities with Lutheranism at Oxford and with Cromwell and the dissolution of the monasteries introduce some confusion in his career -- "many music historians have depicted the composer's role during this period as that of a fanatic bent on the demise" of the religious orders, yet he "was a compassionate advocate" for the religious houses of Boston? (Boston had houses of the Carmelite, Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian orders.) Another site mentions that John Foxe is the source of the "scandal involving the dissident religionist John Clark" but that Foxe may have had him confused with another Taverner at Cardinal College (Wolsey's College that Henry VIII took over and refounded as Christ Church). Don't forget that Wolsey had dissolved the Augustinian Priory of St. Frideswide to establish Cardinal College! As the patron saint of Oxford, her feast day is tomorrow, October 19. Seems like Taverner and his religious views are being used as religious propaganda.

What there is no confusion about is his status as composer. The Tallis Scholars' recording liner notes for a disc of some of his music proclaims him the greatest composer of his era, and the most influential:

There is little in the history of English composition to rival the extent of Taverner's influence on his successors. The development of the 'In nomine' repertoire is the most conspicuous evidence of this, a quite unparalleled event. Originally in a spirit of wanting to flatter Taverner by copying him, composers of every generation up to that of Purcell, and including Purcell himself, tested their contrapuntal techniques by basing music on the 'In nomine' section of the Benedictus of Taverner's Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas. Less well established is that his compositional method, for example in setting chant or developing themes, continued to be used throughout the remainder of the 16th century. It was perhaps to be expected that there would be some carry-through from Taverner's later style in which, by simplifying his lines and turning more to imitative writing, he looked towards the future (as shown, for example, in Byrd's three Masses. But his earlier more florid style was no less inspirational to his successors. To give one example, Robert White transferred Taverner's scoring and texture from the Credo of the Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas at 'Et incarnatus est' wholesale to the 'Sicut locutus est' section in his own six-voice Magnificat.

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