[William Byrd, John Merbecke, and Thomas Tallis] Musicians, 1623, 1585, 1585

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File:William Byrd.jpg

About the Commemoration

John Merbecke was born in 1505 and nothing is known of hischildhood. As a young man he was a chorister at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and from 1541 until near the time of his death in 1585, he served as chapel organist.

Only a small handful of works by Merbecke have survived, most notably the Booke of Common Praier Noted, 1550, composed to accompany the 1549 Book. The appearance of the 1552 Prayer Book made it obsolete, but more recently, Merbecke’s musical setting has been widely used.

Thomas Tallis was born near the beginning of the fifteenth century and very little is known of his early life. After a succession of appointments as a church musician, he spent most of his vocation in service to the Crown as musician to the Chapels Royal under four successive monarchs, both Catholic and Protestant. Although always a Roman Catholic, Tallis had the political savvy to survive the shifts in ecclesial loyalties and the musical acumen to respond to the changing needs of the Church of England. He is regarded as the father of English Church music since the Reformation.

William Byrd was a student, colleague, business partner, and successor of Thomas Tallis. Most likely born in Lincolnshire in 1543, he was appointed organist and choirmaster of Lincoln Cathedral in 1563 and served until he joined Tallis as a gentleman of the Chapels Royal in 1572. Like Tallis, he was a lifelong Roman Catholic but was successful in winning the support for his music among Anglicans of Puritan tendencies, though not without occasional difficulties. His liturgical compositions cover a variety of musical forms: mass settings, motets, graduals, psalm settings, English anthems, and occasional music for the great feasts of the church. Byrd composed for the keyboard and wrote works perhaps best described as consort music for the more popular enjoyment of the court.

Tallis and Byrd collaborated on a number of projects and together held the Crown Patent for the printing of music and lined music paper for twenty-one years.


i O God most glorious, whose praises art sung night and day by thy saints and angels in heaven: We offer thanks for William Byrd, John Merbecke and Thomas Tallis, whose music hath enriched the praise that thy Church offers thee here on earth. Grant, we pray thee, to all who are touched by the power of music such glimpses of eternity that we may be made ready to join thy saints in heaven and behold thy glory unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

ii O God most glorious, whose praises are sung night and day by your saints and angels in heaven: We give you thanks for William Byrd, John Merbecke and Thomas Tallis, whose music has enriched the praise that your Church offers you here on earth. Grant, we pray, to all who are touched by the power of music such glimpses of eternity that we may be made ready to join your saints in heaven and behold your glory unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalm 47


1 Chronicles 15:16,19–25,28

Revelation 15:1–4

John 15:1–8

Preface of a Saint (3)

12 thoughts on “[William Byrd, John Merbecke, and Thomas Tallis] Musicians, 1623, 1585, 1585

  1. Title. These composers are not in order of their death. It might be Merbecke, Tallis, and Byrd? But the larger question is why are these three singled out to be commemorated above all other composers of church music? Deserving as they are – what makes them more deserving than Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, just to name a few giants?

    Readings. Hebrew reading: It has lots of loud music of horn, trumpets, and cymbals. I can’t think of much (any?) of the repertoire of Merbecke, Tallis, and Byrd that employs this ensemble.
    New Testament reading: This is Canticle 19 (or most of it), Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 94. Might it be substituted instead? But I suppose it would then only be two verses instead of four – which I have earlier opined against. Sigh.
    Gospel: Do the vine and the branches connect somehow to lyrics utilized by one of these gentlemen?

    Bio. They need a ‘who they are’ and ‘why they are important’ statement.
    All need a ‘He died in …’ statement.
    4th paragraph: ‘born in Lincolnshire …’ For consistency, perhaps: ‘born in Lincolnshire, England, …”?

  2. Commemorating three musicians on one day, as was done with three others back in June, seems to make it impossible to do justice to any of them, or even to musicians as a whole—one gets the impression of getting them over with as quickly as possible. If there isn’t an argument for giving each his own day, I’d pick Handel back in June and Merbecke today. Merbecke for two reasons: first, he was an Anglican (even though the word was not in use then), and second he wrote much about his faith, and somewhere in his writings there’s likely to be a statement linking his faith and his music that could be quoted if he didn’t have to share the bio with two others.

    The petition in the collect could use a bit of work. There seems to me something odd about praying only for those who are touched by the power of music, although I could say ‘amen’ to a prayer that all who worship might experience that power. I also think there are theological issues involved in the idea that ‘glimpses of eternity’ make people ready to join the saints in heaven. It is the teaching of the Church that only faith in Christ does that, and the collect should harmonise with that.

    • Ironic to claim them an “Anglican” musicians as their greatest works were all written for the Catholic rite. Tallis and Byrd were non-conforming recusants and Merbecke basically stopped writing after his conversion. They all wrote for the Anglican rite but their masterpieces are all for the Sarum and Tridentine rites.

  3. The special interest to us today of Thomas Taliis is that he is “regarded as the father of English church music since the Reformation,” according to the bio above. That he was able to serve both Catholic and Protestant monarchs is in that spirit, providing some continuity in worship despite political upheaval. That Byrd, although Roman Catholic, could usually “appeal to Anglicans of puritan tendencies” is also of interest as we hope to continue to unite in one church their modern counterparts, “Evangelicals” and “Anglo-Catholics.”

  4. perhaps in this setting a critique of the writer is less appropriate than adding other names like the mentioned greats that could add to the spirit of this encouraging and inspiring page. exercising our visible knowledge and our differences or critical disagreements may be suitable for another time or place rather than here. with due respect to the one who commented, the greats are not the only ones who have done wonderful works in both the world and the church. thank you to the author who brought to light the light of others that made a difference in their time.

  5. This feast, like the July 28 feast of Bach, Handel, and Purcell, not only cram too many people in to a single day. They all strike me as conventionally pious Christians who were very good an essentially secular pursuit, albeit a pursuit which many Episcopalians find spiritually uplifting. The same could be said for Walter Johnson, but he’s not likely to get into this particular hall of fame unless Heywood Broun gets a vote.
    The two feasts also honor a particular sort of music. Someday, the fans of jazz, folk music, spirituals, and rock are going to demand equal recognition for their heroes, and we’ll be in the same boat as the Roman Church, which can’t canonize a Franciscan without adding a Dominican and a Jesuit, too.
    Finally, the two new feasts undercut the restoration of St. Cecilia to her November 22 date. She is, as her write-up and collect note, the patron saint of musicians. As her connection to music is traditional rather than historical, her feast has the singular advantage of not being tied to any genre or era, thus avoiding all the problems raised above. I vote for dropping the July 28 and November 21 feasts and wrapping them all into Cecilia’s commemoration. They’re already alluded to in her collect.

  6. I suggest that “Composers of Liturgical Music” would be a more appropriate sub-title

    I note that the title shows them in alphabetical order! They should be listed as they are in the bios: Merbecke, Tallis, and Byrd.

    Line 2, second paragraph: substitute “has” for “have”, or substitute “few” for “small handful”. Handful is a singular subject.

    Line 1, third paragraph. I would prefer “born about 1505”, which is much more accurate than “early in the fifteenth century”, a serious blunder. In English, as opposed to Italian, we number the century that has begun. So from 1501 through 1600, we were in the sixteenth century, just as a girl of 4 is in her fifth year.

    Line 3, third paragraph: substitute “working life” for “vocation”. One does not “spend” a vocation.

    Line 11, third paragraph: i suggest substituting “employing a variety of instruments” for “perhaps best described as consort music”. The “description” is intended for the general reader (who may think this is a typo for “concert music”), not for the aficionado of Early Music.

    Lines 1&2, fourth paragraph: substitute “of (and successor to)” for “and successor of”.

    Line 4, fourth paragraph: capitalize “Gentleman”. In those days, this was a formal title.

  7. About those who are glad that spirituals enrich the music of our church (see Steve’s comment above): although I was born in Erie, I had never heard of Harry Thacker Burleigh until reading about him on the SCLM blog September 11. I love the hymns he is credited with making available to all, some of which are now in our hymnal. Last week I read about him again at the Blasco Library in Erie, where pictures unfold to tell his story to the left of inside doors to the library. Our third son was visiting with his wife and two little ones, and was deeply interested in the story. I was proud to tell him Burleigh was in our calendar. There is a picture of him in a stained glass window in the Episcopal cathedral in Erie. I agree with Martin Luther that music, especially music with words, is a great evangelizing tool. I don’t agree that all musicians who have fed the life of the church can be “taken care of” by St. Cecilia, no more than all evangelists can be “taken care of” by honoring John Wesley (or any one of Christ’s disciples or apostles). Think about this: most people know very little about the history of Anglicanism, let alone Christianity. Reading about these “new” saints enlarges the picture we have of the great number of people who have spread and exemplified our faith through the centuries, in many ways. No one has to observe each commemoration in church, but I think it’s very helpful to have them in the SCLM volume available when people want to inform themselves.

  8. I think it’s evident that this commemoration belongs on the calendar but needs some real work. It’s a “Not Ready for Prime Time” player. The petition in the collects (a) restricts the effects of God’s response to music appreciation types, and (b) makes “musical glimpses” strangely responsible for Christian’ seeking eternal life. That has to be remedied. Merbecke’s vital Christian ministry in areas other than music are totally ignored. Other comments point to additional remedial needs.

    The readings seem a hodge podge, all (except John) involving music or singing but without a core impetus — owing, I think, from a lack of focus in the grab bag theme of “three musical men of yore.” (I don’t see the rationale for the John selection.) Good suggestions have been offered by others; perhaps that will help prompt a re-write with purpose. I like the recognition of Christian music composers, and I know at least in Merbecke’s case a larger and genuine Christian life accompanies the musical aspect, but the write-up and collect did not uphold my personal prayer in this connection today.

  9. I think they deserve to be commemorated, and the propers are good, althought the Revelation passage would be better starting at verse 2 instead of 1.

  10. Surely the fact that Tallis was born near the beginning of the 16th (not 15th, as printed here) century made it into subsequent editions?

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