And there was Light – Day Three

Shedding light on … Music

Thomas Tallis and William Byrd: Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (London, 1575). Shelfmark: OLS 192.n.40

Thomas Tallis and William Byrd: "Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur" (London, 1575) Shelfmark: OLS 192.n.40 no.2The representation of Christ as the light of the world is a recurrent biblical image which has inspired a multitude of devotional texts, many of them set to music by composers in all eras. Thomas Tallis’s well-known motet ‘O nata lux de lumine’ (O light born of light) is a setting of stanzas from a Sarum hymn for the Feast of the Transfiguration, and was first published in Tallis and Byrd’s ‘Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur’ in 1575.

imageThis set of six part-books was a landmark publication, displaying a new sophistication in music printing in England, largely due to the skills of Huguenot refugee printer Thomas Vautrollier. It is not known who instigated the publication: it may have been the composers, or the printer, or perhaps their common patron, the Earl of Arundel. The idea may even have been suggested by Elizabeth I, to whom the publication was dedicated. The Queen had recently granted Tallis and Byrd a monopoly in the publication of printed part-music in England for a period of 21 years, and the collection was certainly designed to honour her by promoting the music of England’s two most notable composers. The preface makes clear that the publication was intended to reach an international audience – an objective which was facilitated by the use of Latin texts. The evident care taken in preparing the publication resulted in high production costs which initial sales failed to offset, leading the composers to petition the Queen for financial aid in 1577.

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The TCD set of part-books is complete, but of mixed provenance: in the sixteenth century four of the part-books belonged to William Rokeby, but the remaining two come from a separate set. Some of the part-books contain a few pages of blank staves which the original owners filled with additional compositions in manuscript: Elizabethan songs, motets and instrumental pieces. This makes the set an important primary source in its own right.

– Roy Stanley