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Reference group
Composers of the Eton choirbook (act. c.1450–c.1515) are the twenty-five English composers of sacred music from among whose works ninety-three were chosen to form the contents of the Eton choirbook, a great volume of mostly polyphonic Marian votive antiphons and Magnificats executed probably between 1502 and 1505, for use by the chapel choir of Eton College and still preserved there (MS 178). Although over one-third of its leaves are now lost, contemporary indices survive to disclose both the titles and the composers of its complete original contents. It is the earliest of only three such volumes still surviving, and is of incomparable value for modern knowledge of a unique and short-lived style of composition.

In biographical terms the association of these composers was entirely arbitrary. They formed no conscious grouping; the earliest, John Dunstaple or Dunstable, died about 1455, some twenty years before the birth of the youngest, probably William Brygeman, about 1475. Mere contemporaneity was the principal ingredient informing their possession of shared objectives and accomplishments. It may be noted, indeed, that to a large extent the current concept of the ‘composers of the Eton choirbook’ has been created primarily by the marketing policies of today's recording and concert-giving industries. So unique, so instantly identifiable, and so almost completely self-contained is the musical style exhibited by this repertory that there appears to prevail an inclination not to ‘dilute’ its effect upon the hearer by juxtaposing against it music of any different style and period, so isolating it in its individuality.

Taking their cue from the final works of Dunstaple (by far the oldest composer represented), the particular achievement of this generation was the creation of a vocal music always founded on its verbal text in the large-scale articulation of structure, but depending for its aesthetic quality primarily on a beauty, character, sonority, and diversity of sound that was driven less by its essentially simple (if suave) harmony than by a non-imitative contrapuntal rhythmic impulse conspicuously florid in individual line and intricate in its resultant counterpoint. The liberal application of extensive melisma, and of calculated contrast between full chorus and passages for reduced numbers of solo voices, generated a style of immensely extended and complex musical phrasing, requiring of its performers extraordinary accomplishment in terms of vocal agility and stamina. Moreover, as the earliest composers to write for the full ecclesiastical choir of men and boys, most commonly in five parts (treble, alto, two tenors, bass), the Eton choirbook composers created the quintessential and enduring sound that is unique to English cathedral music. The style itself was not long-lived; the younger composers included some, especially Robert Fayrfax, in whose hands there would presently evolve the successor style of the mid-Renaissance, less exuberant in rhythm though no less cogent in structure, sonorous in texture, or potent in effect.

The environments within which this body of composers and their works were nurtured are disclosed by consideration of what is known of the employment of the seven composers most copiously represented: John Browne (15 pieces), Walter Lambe (12), Richard Davy (10), Robert Wilkinson (9), William Cornysh the elder (8) [see under Cornysh, William (d. 1523)], Robert Fayrfax (6), and Edmund Turges (5), who in aggregate contributed over two-thirds (65 pieces) of the choirbook's contents. Wilkinson is rather the exception here; as master of the choristers of Eton College from 1500 to 1515 he was trainer and director of the choir of boys and men by whom these compositions were to be performed, and his consequent influence over the selection of pieces ensured the inclusion of perhaps a disproportionately large number of his own, namely seven (to which two were added later, one posthumously). Walter Lambe, with twelve pieces the second most prolific contributor, was a more obvious choice; he was Wilkinson's closest composing neighbour, holding during the years from about 1502 to 1505 the highly prestigious position of singing-man (and sometime master of the choristers) in the choir of the monarch's most conspicuous secular religious foundation, St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, less than a mile distant from Eton.

About the remaining five principal composers oddly little is known, and this tells its own story. Of very few of the major secular churches of this period are the extant archives so exiguous that all record of the employment there of a major composer can now be totally lost. But the survival has been very imperfect of such sources arising from the households of the principal members of the aristocracy and episcopacy. The little that is known of the principal contributing composers associates many of them with the household chapels of royalty and the secular aristocracy, and their common enjoyment of this class of employment may well explain why so little is known about the rest.

Thus the sole piece of information available concerning Browne, the principal Eton choirbook composer, identifies him as in 1490 a chaplain of the household chapel of John de Vere, thirteenth earl of Oxford. The texts of two of the secular songs by Turges indicate that he likewise moved in aristocratic circles, and close to the royal court. Indeed the plaintive engagement by Browne of phrases from the tenor of Turges's song ‘From stormy windes’ (calling upon the Almighty to extend his protection to Arthur, prince of Wales) as cantus firmus of his setting of ‘Stabat iuxta Christi crucem’ (a text expressing the distress of Mary at the death of her son upon the cross), suggests a close association between these two composers, and also between them and the court of Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth at the time of Arthur's untimely death in 1502. The slightly earlier figure of Gilbert Banastre is better documented. A gentleman of Edward IV's Chapel Royal by 1469, he became master of the choristers ten years later, and lived to serve Henry VII, whose marriage to Elizabeth of York in 1486 he may have celebrated in his motet ‘O Maria et Elizabeth’. Of the elder William Cornysh, by contrast, nothing is known for certain following his departure from the mastership of the lady chapel choir of Westminster Abbey in 1491, and of Davy nothing following his departure from Magdalen College, Oxford, in the same year or a little later. Both, however, were prime contributors of music of the greatest refinement to the choirbook, and there are grounds for believing that both may very well have moved into aristocratic service. Indeed the choirbook's illuminator worked no less than the royal arms into one initial letter of Davy's ‘O domine celi terreque creator’; moreover by c.1502–5 Fayrfax had certainly reached royal employment as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and before 1497 may have been enjoying a post comparable to Cornysh's, putatively as master of the lady chapel choir at St Albans Abbey. Indeed there has survived from the hands of all six of these composers music not only to sacred texts for church use but also to vernacular texts of secular courtly character, and this feature appears to offer strong corroboration, even confirmation, of a contention that all found their principal employment in the households of royalty and the aristocracy. The same seems very likely to be true also of the otherwise unidentified but highly accomplished Fawkyner (3) and Hugh Kellyk (2).

A feature common to a number of rather minor composers, and probably helping to procure their inclusion, was their enjoyment, like Wilkinson, not of particularly great composing talent but rather of an existing association with Eton College. As a boy Robert Hacomblen (1) had been a scholar of the college, and John Sutton (1) had been a fellow, in 1469–72 and 1477–9 respectively. Sutton's whereabouts after leaving Eton are not known; he may well be the Sutton who received the degree of MusB from Cambridge University in 1489, but an enduring association with Eton is suggested by the depiction of the college's arms in one initial letter of his ‘Salve regina’. Hacomblen spent most of his adult career associated with Eton's sister foundation of King's College, Cambridge, where he was provost from 1509 to 1528. William Brygeman (2) was one of the lay clerks of the Eton choir at the time of the choirbook's compilation, and John Sygar (2) had been a chaplain of the chapel choir of King's College (1499–1501, 1508–14).

Beyond these two primary categories, the compiler selected fifteen compositions created by eleven mostly minor and provincial composers. The best represented were Lincoln Cathedral's William Horwood (4) and Arundel College's Nicholas Huchyn (2). These pieces add up to less than one-sixth of the total, and hardly constitute the choirbook's most distinguished component. Their presence scarcely compromises the conclusion that the composers of the Eton choirbook were primarily an élite assemblage, the contents of the volume having been drawn mostly from the work of the top men in royal and aristocratic service, amplified by the work of others, of varying accomplishment, enjoying a specific Eton connection.

Roger Bowers


F. L. Harrison, ed., The Eton choirbook, 2nd edn, 3 vols., Musica Britannica, 10–12 (1967–73) · F. Harrison, ‘The Eton choirbook: its background and contents’, Annales Musicologiques, 1 (1953), 151–75 · F. L. Harrison, Music in medieval Britain, 2nd edn [1963] · F. Harrison, ‘English polyphony, c.1470–1540’, Ars Nova and the renaissance, 1300–1540, ed. D. A. Hughes and G. Abraham (1960), vol. 3 of The new Oxford history of music · H. Benham, Latin church music in England, c.1460–1575 (1977) · H. Benham, ‘Prince Arthur (1486–1502), a carol and a cantus firmus’, Early Music, 15 (1987), 463–7 · R. Bowers, ‘To chorus from quartet: the performing resource for English church polyphony’, English choral practice, 1400–1650, ed. J. Morehen (1995), 1–47 · M. Williamson, ‘The early Tudor court, the provinces, and the Eton Choirbook’, Early Music, 25 (1997), 229–43 · M. Williamson, ‘The Eton choirbook: collegiate music-making in the reign of Henry VII’, The reign of Henry VII, ed. B. Thompson (1995), 213–28