Qui tantus primo Parsone in flore fuisti,
Parsons, you who were so great in the springtime of life,
Quantus in autumno ni morere fores.
How great you would have been in the autumn, had not death come.
This tribute, written in the 1580s by Robert Dow, copyist of one of the most important manuscript sources for the Latin-texted music of Robert Parsons, acknowledges that the sudden and untimely death of the composer occurred at a time when he was probably just reaching his musical maturity. The manner of it is recorded in the stark and economical words of the Cheque Book (official record book) of the Chapel Royal: ‘Rbt Parsons was drowned at Newark upon Trent the 25th of January [1571/2], and Wm. Bird sworn gentleman in his place at the first the 22nd of February following’. Few other facts about Parsons’ life are documented: one is a reference that occurs in connection with payments to the Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal in 1560 – 61 (confirming his involvement with music there even before his appointment as a Gentleman in 1563), and the other records that he obtained a crown lease on properties in Lincolnshire in 1567 (which might have been a reason for him to have been travelling through Newark).
However, a little more can be surmised from his surviving musical output, which includes a quantity of instrumental consort pieces as well as sacred vocal works to both Latin and English texts, as well as his historical circumstances. The religious conflicts that raged through mid-16th century England directly affected all musicians working for the church, requiring them to set different texts and, under Edward VI, effectively imposing musical restrictions. Though Parsons’ date of birth is uncertain, he is thought to have been about 18 by 1553, the year that Mary Tudor succeeded her half-brother Edward VI to the throne. The Protestant reformers who had prevailed during the reign of the young Edward were soon swept away as the new queen ordered a return to Papal jurisdiction and the reinstatement of Catholic rites. Composers of the generation senior to Parsons, such as Sheppard and Tallis, found themselves having to adapt to fundamental changes in musical requirements as the short syllabic English anthems favoured by the Protestants of Edward’s reign were replaced by more extended Latin Magnificats, hymns and responds for the liturgical Offices which were generally built around the appropriate plainchant.
The accession to the throne of Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth in 1558 ushered in another period of religious change. With the Act of Uniformity and the subsequent publication of a new Prayer Book, services were appointed to be said in English. There were, however, certain exemptions from this instruction, notably at the Chapel Royal – the monarch’s own musical establishment – and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, presumably on the basis that these were places where Latin would have been understood, and this offers a possible explanation for the fact that so much of the finest music of the 1560s and 70s was inspired by Latin texts. The queen herself was known to have held moderate or relatively conservative beliefs, and to have sought a settlement to the strife of the preceding decades. Whether the intended purpose of the Elizabethan Latin sacred music of Parsons and his contemporary Robert White was for the Chapel Royal, for domestic devotions or perhaps for recusants, it surely represents the most interesting and significant musical thought to come from the generation immediately senior to Byrd. While some English-texted sacred music by Parsons does survive – notably a set of canticles in the ‘great’ service manner – his Latin works are of fine quality and like White, he was surely too young to have written them all before 1558.
In his Latin Magnificat, the work most likely to date from the Marian period, Parsons demonstrated his familiarity with older compositional techniques as well as his mastery of their complexities. The tradition of setting the even-numbered verses to elaborate polyphony (the odd-numbered ones being chanted) can be seen as far back as the settings by composers represented in the Eton Choirbook (compiled in the 1490s), and was continued by those of Taverner’s generation, before those by Parsons and White. Like White, Parsons composed a large-scale setting of this Vesper canticle; he scored it for six voices that together span a range over three octaves, a feature that often distinguished English music from continental at this time. The sonorous full-voice texture is contrasted with verses for three or four voices, and there are also sections where one or more voices are divided into two equal ones (a technique known as ‘gimel’, from the Latin word ‘gemellus’: twin), facilitating a particularly attractive style of imitative writing by voice exchange. Underlying several of the verses are canons in which Parsons displayed his mastery of this technical procedure, which is never made to sound effortful. Both the scale and the complexity of the writing suggest that he must have been writing for a highly proficient group of singers; this was surely the work of a young man demonstrating what he could do.
Another ritual work most probably from about time is the Vesper hymn Iam Christus astra ascenderat, for Pentecost. Like Sheppard and Tallis, both of whom also set this text, Parsons again followed the alternatim structure, presenting the plainchant in the top voice of the polyphonic verses, and surrounding it with short imitative phrases in the other voices; it is interesting to note that this technique was not dissimilar to that of the instrumental In nomine, a form well-established at this time, and one that Parsons cultivated.
As a member of the Chapel Royal from 1563 onwards, and evidently associated with it even before this, Parsons would have known many of the musicians working in London. Writing in the early 1960s, the scholar Joseph Kerman drew attention to some fascinating points of musical contact between composers moving in these circles. Judging from their settings of the same texts from the Burial Service, it seems that Alfonso Ferrabosco (a native of Bologna who was resident in England on and off during these years), Parsons and Byrd were well familiar with each other’s music. Furthermore, it may be noted that William Mundy (appointed to the Chapel Royal just a year after Parsons), White and Parsons all set various sections of Psalm 118 (119 in Anglican numbering), which may not have been coincidental.
Two of Parsons’ Burial Service responds, Libera me de morte aeterna and Peccantem me, are constructed around a plainchant cantus firmus, while the other one, Credo quod redemptor, is freely composed in the imitative syllabic style that was soon to evolve a new expressive potential in the hands of Tallis and Byrd. Parsons’ setting of Libera me may have been the model for that of Byrd, included in the 1575 Cantiones sacrae; but for the text Peccantem me, Parsons used the plainchant as cantus firmus whereas Byrd (again in the 1575 Cantiones sacrae) broke away from that tradition. In the other Burial Service motet, Credo quod redemptor, some melodic resemblances may be noted with the setting by Alfonso Ferrabosco; with its concise polyphony and pungent dissonances Parsons created a particularly memorable piece.
Whereas all these texts were liturgical in origin, others, freely selected from the psalms, began to become popular amongst composers such as Parsons, White and William Mundy. The words of Retribue servo tuo are drawn from Psalm 118, and Parsons’ extended setting follows the votive antiphon pattern, with trios and quartets contrasting with passages for full choir. Domine quis habitabit (psalm 14, also set by White, William Mundy,Tallis and Byrd), on the other hand, is through-composed, and features some contrast between high voices and low ones.
The text O bone Jesu was known as the Verses of St Bernard, a compilation of psalm verses each prefaced by an acclamation (‘O bone Jesu’, ‘O Adonai’, ‘O Messias’ etc); such words were frequently included in the Books of Hours or Primers used by the wealthy and literate for their private devotions. This indisputably Catholic text was among the ‘superstitious’ devotions that attracted the disapproval of Thomas Cranmer, archbishop and reformer during the reign of Edward VI. Parsons highlights each of the acclamations in block chords, framing the verses whose expansive imitative phrases are developed with characteristically oblique harmonic movement. Such a text was very unlikely to have been destined for anyone but a Catholic, which perhaps hints at the composer’s own beliefs.
The justly much-loved Ave Maria is the piece that first introduced most of us to Parsons’ music (not least because it was available in a modern edition). It would have been sung at a time of reflection, the end of the evening service of Compline, and conveys a sense of great serenity as it gradually unfolds through a rising pedal-point in the top voice to an Amen whose soaring phrases seem to make a perfect counterpart to the architecture of the time.
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Despite the indisputably high quality of much of Robert Parsons’ surviving music, it is only in quite recent times that it has reached many listeners, even among those with a particular interest in this period; this recording, as far as I know, is only the second one to be devoted solely to his music. There are historic reasons for this situation, which lie mainly in the circumstances of 20th- century music publishing. Parsons’ music, along with that of Tye and Sheppard, became a casualty of the financial problems that truncated the plans for the great Tudor Church Music library series supported by the Carnegie Trust in the 1920s and 30s, from which many performing editions were derived in the following decades. It was not until the Early English Church Music volume of 1994 (ed. Paul Doe) that the Latin-texted music reached library shelves, and much of the English-texted music is still awaiting publication. But the accessibility of all the vocal music has now been transformed by an exciting online project, set up by George Steel at Columbia University: