Tallis and Byrd Publish

Tallis and Byrd’s motets utilized the sophisticated compositional techniques of Continental European composers, which helped to define England as a full and equal participant in the blossoming of Renaissance musical art at a time when England was distancing itself from the religious authority of the Catholic Church in Rome.

Summary of Event

A great deal of music by major composers in European countries outside England had been printed by 1575, so England had fallen behind. A notable exception was the XX Songes of 1530, the first printed collection of English music, both secular and religious and including music in English, with pieces by John Taverner and others. There were other modest publications of Protestant religious music, but nothing on the scale of music publishing on the Continent. Also, the use of the vernacular rather than Latin in these early efforts reflected a more local rather than international audience. Music;England
Cantiones sacrae (Tallis and Byrd)
Tallis, Thomas
Byrd, William
Elizabeth I
Vautrollier, Thomas
Elizabeth I (queen of England)
Vautrollier, Thomas
Ferrabosco, Alfonso, the Elder
Tallis, Thomas
Byrd, William

All this would change in 1575, when Queen Elizabeth I granted a monopoly on music publishing Publishing, music (including printing and selling music and lined music paper) to Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, who both served as organists and composers for the Chapel Royal. Tallis, who was Byrd’s teacher and was forty years older, already had served in the courts of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and the Counter-Reformationist Mary I. Tallis had been trained in a monastic environment and had also written music to be used for the Sarum rite, or liturgy, the English variant of the Catholic liturgy that became the basis for Anglican practice. He had survived the rapid shifts in religious and political orientation, adapting his music to fit the changing needs of the court, and was well-respected.

Byrd, who rose to prominence under the guidance of Tallis, was beginning a long and successful career in the court. Although Byrd was a recusant, one who followed Catholic practice privately in an officially Protestant state, this was offset by his musical brilliance and his loyal service to Elizabeth. Byrd followed the innovations of his Continental contemporaries and was especially adept at the use of imitation, a musical technique in which different voices would be interwoven in long sequences based on the shared melodic patterns displaced by time and pitch, resulting in very active but tightly constructed compositions.

For their first publication, the two composers planned a very ambitious collection of choral pieces written for a minimum of five voices. To print the volume, they chose Thomas Vautrollier, a refugee from France who fled the persecutions of Protestant Huguenots. Vautrollier brought with him a valuable music font. The publication’s text was in Latin, which was generally required at the time for international readability and academic integrity. Interestingly, Latin was used to announce the importance of English music and intellectual culture in the volume’s opening verses. The queen was fond of Latin motets, which were still performed in various devotional contexts. The motets served as the unifying musical genre of the thirty-four pieces in their famous 1575 collection Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, better known as Cantiones sacrae.

Although there was some subdivision and merging of the musical works to arrive at the proper sum, the two composers each officially contributed seventeen compositions to the collection, in honor of the seventeen years of Elizabeth’s reign at the time of publication. The pieces were organized by mode and utilized many kinds of religious texts, including hymns, psalms, prayers, and biblical quotations.

Some of Tallis’s contributions had been written during the reigns of previous monarchs, including “Suscipe Quaeso,” a seven-voice piece Tallis wrote twenty years earlier, probably for a service attended by Queen Mary and her husband, Philip II of Spain. Tallis’s older motets included five that utilized the very traditional cantus firmus (firm voice) technique. In this practice of great antiquity, a preexisting melody, usually a sacred chant or “plainsong” melody, precedes the composition and is then included within it as an unchanging element in the musical texture. In this tradition, the cantus firmus influences the compositional structure of the newly composed elements, which must be consonant with the original melody.

A wide range of sophisticated compositional techniques were used in Cantiones sacrae, including the use of cancrizans, or retrograde, another practice inherited from medieval musicians. One of Byrd’s motets, “Diliges Dominum,” a piece in eight voices, utilizes this technique, even though its surface harmonies are very simple. A reversal of melodic direction takes place in the middle of the motet, so that if sung from end to beginning, the same music would result.

The more modern-sounding motets in Cantiones sacrae were influenced by the work of Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder, an Italian musician who was present at Elizabeth’s court during this period. Ferrabosco was especially well-known for his composition of madrigals, secular pieces inspired by a fusion of poetry and music. Byrd’s pieces, in particular, share Ferrabosco’s tendency to explore the expressive potential of a text, an ideal of the madrigal style that reflected the humanistic tendencies of the Renaissance.

In spite of their landmark artistic achievement in publishing Cantiones sacrae, the two composers overestimated the commercial demand for their printed music and underestimated the cost of the production, to the point that they were soon forced to request more funds from Queen Elizabeth. Even their monopoly on music printing, possibly intended to encourage their prosperity, was of limited financial benefit, especially to Tallis, who lived just ten more years and was unable to publish more of his works. Tallis willed his half of the monopoly to Byrd’s son, and Byrd published, along with other works, additional volumes of Cantiones sacrae in 1589 and 1591.


Although it was not financially profitable, the publication of Cantiones sacrae was politically and culturally significant. The retention of Latin texts in the music reflected an element of cultural continuity within the English Reformation, which at this time was more conservative than its German counterpart. Because it served both as a kind of retrospective for the older Tallis and as a relatively early collection of pieces by Byrd, a broad range of Renaissance musical styles was included in the 1575 publication.

Subsequent generations of English musicians have been inspired by Cantiones sacrae, and some of its pieces later appeared with English texts, becoming part of the standard Anglican repertoire. Today, the music is performed internationally in concert settings, usually in the original Latin. Because the project was supervised by the composers, the quality of printing and notational accuracy of Cantiones sacrae also made it a valuable document for musicologists, who have used it to decipher musical pieces not well-preserved or well-notated.

Although the musical excellence of this single collection is generally accepted, the exclusive patent under which it was produced silenced other voices in the two decades after its publication. Whether because of a lack of foresight or because of a deliberate attempt at political suppression on the part of the queen, a monopoly of twenty-one years could not have been beneficial to the development of English music, even with the optimistic introductory verses of the first Cantiones sacrae.

Further Reading

  • Brown, Allen, and Richard Tubet, eds. Byrd Studies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Detailed information and research concerning the structure and context of Byrd’s music, including his contributions to Cantiones sacrae.
  • Harley, John. William Byrd: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1997. Organized into two sections, covering biographical narrative and musical analysis. Illustrated, with an extensive bibliography, appendices, tables, and indexes.
  • Kerman, Joseph. The Masses and Motets of William Byrd. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. A complete exploration of Byrd’s sacred compositions, highlighting the unique aspects of various pieces and the evolution of his style. Includes a bibliography, tables, musical examples, detailed footnotes, an index of Byrd’s works, and an index of names.
  • Morehen, John, ed. English Choral Practice, 1400-1650. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Detailed studies of the performance practice of the time period, including reference to the contrast between English and Latin pronunciation and other issues affecting music interpretation. Includes a chapter on Byrd, Tallis, and Ferrabosco.
  • Smith, Jeremy L. Thomas East and Music Publishing in Renaissance England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Includes relevant information about the emergence of a music publishing industry during this period, including the effects of Byrd’s monopoly, and covers social context as well. Illustrated, with a bibliography, appendices, and an index.

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