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John Taverner (c.1490-1545), O Wilhelme pastor bone


John Taverner is the most important English composer of sacred music from the first part of the sixteenth century. His work spans the end of the ‘Gothic’ or ‘Medieval’ period and the beginning of the Renaissance. Some characteristics of each style in the context of England are listed below.

  Gothic Transitional Renaissance
Typical composer(s) John Dunstable (1390-1453) Nicholas Ludford (1490-1557); John Taverner (c.1490-1545) John Dowland (c.1563-1626);William Byrd (1543-1623)
Liturgy Catholic: Sarum (i.e. Salisbury) Rite Initially Catholic (including O Wilhelme), but the Church of England was founded in the 1530s by Henry VIII. Protestant, but brief period of Catholic monarchy 1553-8 (Mary Tudor). Some composers wrote Catholic music for private consumption, and others emigrated to Catholic or tolerant areas of the Continent.
Part-writing Independent: Some works, e.g. Dunstable’s isorhythmic motets, even have different words for each voice part Less independent: parts move together more of the time. Cf. Confer opem, bar 16-19. It is very rare to find all the parts singing the same words at the same time (homophony) in the Gothic period  
Rhythmic complexity Very complex and intricate rhythmic constructions: unparalleled until the twentieth century (e.g. Michael Finnissy, Edgard Varèse) Less complex, although some of the rhythmic interest is maintained in this Taverner piece. The work is correctly transcribed into 4/4 because of the presence of minims, but there are many three-beat units going against this, e.g. O Wilhelme and Cleri Pater Can be relatively foursquare. Cf. Sweelinck’s Pavana lachrimae
Imitation Very little Imitation both between groups of voices and individual voices Common feature of Renaissance music
Melodic style Florid More restrained and economical More restrained and economical
Word-underlay Usually several notes per syllable Often set syllabically Usually set syllabically, in order to be able to declaim the words clearly
Response to words Often no reflection in music, especially when setting three sets of words at once Structural rather than pictorial. Important words are emphasised, e.g. et coronae Coelestis da gloriam, in which all the parts join in Some pictorial setting or emotional response. Cf. Dowland Flow my teares.
Nature of musical sections Continuous music until section (e.g. Sanctus part of mass or whole motet) finishes Choir continually divides and re-groups Choir continually divides and re-groups

Cardinal College, now Christ Church, Oxford. It was here that he composed the short votive antiphon O Wilhelme pastor bone, a prayer for the founder of the college, Cardinal Wolsey. Taverner’s earlier and longer works include qualities associated with the Gothic period, but his shorter, later works rely more heavily on modern innovations from Continental composers. These include antiphony, where one choir or group of parts answers another; imitation, a form of altered and consequential repetition; and homophony, where all the parts sing at once.

The music of O Wilhelme pastor bone survives in four part-books, which are now in the library of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Harrison’s Music in Medieval Britain (London 1958, page 34) shows that in the Peterhouse copy, the work begins with the words ‘Christe Jesu pastor bone’, and the second stanza begins ‘Fundatorem specialem serva regem nunc Henricum’, rather than ‘Fundatorem specialem serva Thomam Cardinalem’. An alteration occurred after the Reformation; since Cardinal Wolsey lost his power and influence, the words were changed to make the first part (bars 1-32) appear to be a Jesus-antiphon, with the remaining music a prayer for Henry VIII.

Translated, the words read:

O William, good shepherd,
Father and patron of the clergy,
To us in the trials of the world
Grant help and remove
Life’s baseness, and give us
The joy of a heavenly crown.

Save our very own founder Cardinal Thomas;
And watch over the Church
O protector of these the devout;
And to both let be allowed
The reward of eternal life.

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