John Taverner (c.1490-1545)

This week I was saddened to hear the news that the composer Sir John Tavener has died. I have always enjoyed the beauty of his choral works such as The Lamb and Song for Athene. Learning of his death also inspired me to find out more about the Renaissance composer John Taverner, from whom the former was directly descended and who lived and is buried in my hometown of Boston, Lincolnshire.

John Taverner was born in Lincolnshire around 1490. In the early 1520s he was working as a lay clerk at the collegiate church of Tattershall and in 1524 he travelled to Boston as a guest singer at St Botolph’s Church, better known as ‘The Stump’. In 1526 he was appointed organist and master of choristers at Cardinal Church (now Christ Church), Oxford. The church had been established the previous year by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Taverner worked there until around 1530. He spent the final part of his life in Boston, where he was a lay clerk in the choir of The Stump for a number of years. Shortly before his death, in 1545, he was appointed an alderman of Boston. He is buried under the bell tower in St Botolph’s and a memorial to him can be seen in the church.

Photo by James Yardley

photo: James Yardley

St Botolph’s Church as it stands today began to be built in 1309, but its famous tower was only completed between 1510 and 1520. During this period Boston had a thriving local port which handled various goods for Lincolnshire, although it was much less important than it had been during 13th and 14th centuries when it was greatly involved in the exportation of wool and was the 4th richest provincial town in England; the grand scale of The Stump is a symbol of this wealth. In 1545 Henry VIII granted Boston a charter and it became a borough.



Most of Taverner’s surviving music dates from the 1520s and many of his works and compositional techniques were extremely influential right up until the time of Purcell. One example is the mass ‘Gloria tibi Trinitas’; in the Benedictus the section beginning ‘In nomine’ is for 4 voices and the Cantus Firmus (from which the mass gets its title) is heard in the mean/alto part. This passage quickly began to be used as an instrumental piece and many subsequent composers wrote music in the form of ‘In Nomine’. In this performance the In Nomine can be heard at 33:30: Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas.

Another of Taverner’s masses is Westron Wynde. In this case the Cantus Firmus is taken from a popular song rather than a religious work and it is believed to be the first mass by an English composer to be based on a secular melody. (Cantus Firmus is the use of a pre-existing melody as the basis of a new polyphonic work).

Over 4 centuries later Sir John Tavener continued in his footsteps with an extensive output of religious works inspired by Russian Orthodox theology and mysticism. No doubt his legacy, as that of his ancestor, will influence the future of choral music.

Charity concert for Friends of St Nicholas Fields in York

On Friday 6th December I will be performing in a concert in the Unitarian Chapel in York to raise money for Friends of St Nicholas Fields, along with David Hammond (piano), Catherine Strachan (cello and bass), Ellen Jordan (cello) and Thea Jacob (soprano).

St Nicks (as it’s more commonly known) is an environmental charity and York’s leading organisation in promoting sustainable living. It has an award-winning environmental centre and a thriving nature reserve and also provides services such as kerbside recycling, advice on composting and education programmes.

st nicks

Following on from our 4 ‘seasonal’ concerts for St Nicks last year, this programme will be full of variety. I will be performing Corelli’s Sonata ‘La Follia’ and arrangements for violin and piano of the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and the Mazurka from Delibes’ ballet Coppelia.

The Italian composer Archangelo Corelli (1653-1713) published a set of 12 sonatas for violin and continuo, op.5, in Rome in 1700. The 12th is a set of variations on the theme of ‘La Folia’ a 16-bar chord progression commonly used by composers during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. It originated as a Portuguese folk dance (note the difference in spelling in the Italian version) and gradually evolved into the form used here by Corelli. This sonata is in D minor, the most commonly used key for a Folia, and Corelli’s 23 variations transform the basic theme in many different ways, by use of rhythms, double-stopping and interplay between the instruments.

The beautiful Intermezzo is taken from Mascagni’s one-act Cavalleria Rusticana. It was written in only 2 months for a competition which was open to all young Italian composers who had not yet had an opera performed on stage. Mascagni’s entry won first prize and it remains the most popular of his 15 operas.

A mazurka is a traditional polish dance in triple time and it became popular as a dance in ballrooms throughout Europe during 19th century. Delibes composed the music for Coppelia in 1870; the plot of the ballet involves an inventor, Dr Coppelius, and a life-size wind-up doll. The mazurka features in a lively street scene in Act 1.

Our concert will also include Rossini’s Duetto in D major for Cello and Double Bass, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and a selection of songs performed by Thea Jacob.

Tickets are available in advance through the St Nicks website or on the door.

Preparations for Christmas at Castle Howard

Performing in the Christmas event at Castle Howard is always one of the highlights of my musical year. The family-owned house, which is one of the top tourist attractions in North Yorkshire and known for being the filming location for Brideshead Revisited, will be beautifully decorated throughout with trees, lights and baubles. During the 4-week event a variety of musicians are engaged to help add to the atmosphere, past performers including soprano Lucy Jubb and pianist Emmanuel Vass.

I first performed at Castle Howard with my pianist David Hammond in December 2007 and in subsequent years I have also been accompanied by Laura Jones. The Bösendorfer piano in the Long Gallery is always a treat for them to play; I know they always make sure to include the extra keys in the bass (a low F, F#, G and G#) at some point!

Castle H piano

We always keep the repertoire varied and include a mixture of popular classical music, such as Massenet’s Meditation and Elgar’s Salut d’Amour, jazz standards (Glenn Miller’s I know Why and Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight being among my favourites) and of course some Christmas music; Rudolph and Jingle Bells are always especially popular with the children. The visitors have the opportunity to sit and listen for a while by the roaring log fire or just to wander through admiring the enormous tree in the centre of the gallery. In the past there has been the occasional couple waltzing past as well!

As we prepare our music for this year we have a number of new additions, including the beautiful Vocalise by Rachmaninov and music from the show Mack and Mabel.

This year’s event runs from 23rd November until 22nd December (see the Castle Howard website for opening times and prices). I will be performing on Tuesday 17th, Wednesday 18th and Thursday 19th December, times tbc.

c how 2

Workshop: Six Centuries of Church Music

I will be performing in Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary as part of this ‘Come and Sing’ day in St Clement’s Church, York on 19th October.

The event will be a fast-paced day of choral singing which charts the development of liturgical music in the English church, from its origins in plainsong through to the worship songs of the 21st century!

This whistle-stop tour will cover:

– plainsong (sung from original notation), plainsong elaboration and fauxbourdon
– music in English and Latin from reformation and counter-reformation
– Purcell’s funeral music for Queen Mary, with strings and continuo
– the development of psalmody
– West Gallery music and the cathedral/parish split
– hymns
– the Victorian revival (Stanford)
– the 20th century (Vaughan Williams) and beyond

This is the third in a series of highly successful Come & Sing days organised by the South Bank Singers, directed by Toby Wardman and with David Hammond at the piano and organ.

There will be a fee of £15 to cover sheet music and refreshments. The day will end with an informal performance of highlights from the workshop to a very small audience!

To book and pay, contact John Guest ( or Toby Wardman (


Upcoming Concert – St Nicks Summer Benefit

The fourth concert in our series to raise money for Friends of St Nicholas Fields, York. Programme includes Telemann’s Wassermusik and The Lark Ascending. Check out the St Nick’s Website

St Nicks concert image

More info: