Tag Archives: Tudor England

Historic Organs – The Early English Organ Project

It is one of the tragedies of the English reformation, that the violence and intolerance of the time led to the ultimate destruction of all organs from the Tudor period.  Although the choral music of this time continues to be performed today, the organ sounds of that time have been largely unknown.  Following two remarkable discoveries of fragments of  Tudor period organs (one in a farmhouse door in Wetheringsett in Suffolk and another at Wingfield Church in Suffolk amongst assorted pieces of lumber in the coffin house of the church yard), the Royal College of Organists in England began The Early English Organ Project.  Working with contemporary organ builders, Martin Goetze and Dominic Gwynn, they have created reconstructions of these organs using the recovered fragments and other documentary materials as models.  A third Tudor-style organ was later created under the direction and sponsorship of Bangor University.  For the first time since the destruction of the organs in the chaos of the English reformation, we can again hear what these organs probably sounded like.

4th Sunday in Lent ~ Lætare – 18 March 2012

Opening Voluntary:  Glorificamus – John Redford (1491-1547)

At the Communion: “Remember not, O Lord” – Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), Transcription from the Mulliner Book (c. 1570)

Concluding Voluntary: La Doune Cella – Anon. from the Mulliner Book (c. 1570)

Our early organ music series this Lent takes us this week to Tudor England.  Spanning the period of the early English reformation and the lives of the British monarchs Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, this time witnessed great changes in church music, and it must be admitted that the English organ suffered greatly during this chaotic epoch.  Prior to the reformation, there had existed many organs in churches in England.  Most had at least one, and some had two or more organs.  If the church was fortunate enough to have more than one, the main organ was usually located in or near the nave, and the other often was placed in the Lady chapel for use in special services dedicated to the Virgin.  English organs of this period were relatively simpler than their European counterparts.  Most had a single manual, a limited keyboard compass and few stops. None had pedals. Increasingly through the times of the early reformation, the use of organs in worship came to be regarded as superstitious and “popish.” The progressive disuse  of the organ in England culminated in a later wholesale destruction after parliamentary edicts. As a result, no organ from this period survives today, although recent efforts are underway to reconstruct instruments of this time based on texts and surviving fragments.

‘Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! What tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together.’ – Bishop Joseph Hall of Norwich, 1643

The opening volunatary today, the Glorificamus by John Redford, continues the pre-reformation, English and continental practice of alternatim organ music in which the voices of the choir alternated with the organ in “singing” phrases of the Mass ordinary and other liturgical music.  This Glorificamus likely was based on the sixth phrase of the Gloria in the Mass, specifically the “We glorify you” (in Latin, Glorificamus te). The second piece in today’s liturgy, played at the communion, is clearly later than the Glorificamus and is an organ transcription of an early reformation, English anthem composed by Thomas Tallis.  This anthem,”Remember not, O Lord,” based on verses 8-10 and 14 of Psalm 79, survives as a vocal piece as well as in this original organ version from the Mulliner Book of c. 1570. It is illustrative of the attempt to create new music for the vernacular English prayerbook liturgy.

Remember not, O Lord God, our old iniquities, but let thy mercy speedily prevent us, for we be very miserable. Help us God our Saviour, and, for the glory of thy name, delver us. Be merciful and forgive our sins, for thy name’s sake. Let not the wicked people say, “Where is their God?” We be thy people, and the sheep of thy pasture. We shall give thanks unto thee for ever. From age to age we shall set forth thy laud and praise. To thee be honor and glory, world without end. Amen. (From Psalm 79, An Anthem by Thomas Tallis)

The concluding voluntary, by an anonymous composer, is an example of secular writing for the keyboard in Tudor England.  The coexistence of secular keyboard music along with the popularity in this period in England of a form of the harpsichord known as the “Virginal” later led to the labeling of this entire “school” of keyboard music as the “English Virginalists.”  This term, however, is no earlier than the 19th century and suggests a misunderstanding of early English music that assumes the harpsichord as the secular counterpart of the organ, which was reserved only for religious use. In actual fact, the organ was used in both secular and religious settings, and the single-keyboard form of this music is well suited to both harpsichord and organ.

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