Cantiones Sacrae (1575) : Work information

William Byrd ( Music, Images,)
Thomas Tallis ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Choir of New College Oxford, Edward Higginbottom (Conductor)

This work

Work name
Cantiones Sacrae (1575)
Work number
1575-00-00 02:00:00

This recording

Simon Lawman
Bob Auger
Recording date

Track listing

  • Honor virtus et potestas 5:58 min
  • O sacrum convivium 4:41 min
  • Salvator Mundi (I) 3:28 min


In 1575 Byrd and Tallis embarked on a unique venture. They secured a patent from Queen Elizabeth giving them a. 21-year monopoly on all printing and marketing of part-music and music paper. As an advertisement for their new business, they published a collection of their works dedicated to the Queen, entitled Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (Songs which are called sacred on account of their texts), or Cantiones Sacrae as it's commonly known.

In publishing a collection of Latin motets, some perhaps performed in the Queen's chapel, the two composers chose a genre capable of displaying a wide variety of compositional skills and techniques. As a business venture, however, the partnership failed entirely and didn't produce another publication for another 13 years, by which time Tallis was dead and Byrd had sole rights to the patent. Nor did the Cantiones Sacrae travel abroad as might have been hoped.

Nevertheless, the collection preserves many great works, seventeen from each composer, and includes some of Tallis' last and most advanced motets such as In ieiunio et fletu and Derelinquat impius. Of Byrd's contribution, Attollite portas, for six voices, was particularly popular during his life, and was adapted to suit at least two different sets of English words.

The Composers

William Byrd

Possibly born in Lincoln, where he was organist and choirmaster from 1563 to 1570, Byrd is known to have been a pupil of Thomas Tallis .  While employed in Lincoln he began to find his feet as a composer, assimilating the genres of the time and investing them with his own style.  His evolution as a composer is evident in his works for voice and viol consort - they begin as elementary settings of verse but progress to incorporate continuous counterpoint in the accompanying parts.  These may be the first examples of the verse-anthem form, and some would conjecture that Byrd was the inventor of the form.

From 1570 to 1580 Byrd held the post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in London, for which he wrote extensively.  His greatest works in the field of church music were the volumes of Cantiones Sacrae, the Short Service and the Gradualia, masterpieces of Renaissance English vocal counterpoint.  The Cantiones were also his calling card, printed as a business venture by himself and Tallis and ostentatiously dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.  This dedication was to be dug out later to persuade Elizabeth to give them compensation when their business venture lost them money!

Byrd's position in London allowed him to fraternize with nobility, and he set texts written by many prominent figures of the time.  It also allowed him to meet Alfonso Ferrabosco, a secret agent and composer who introduced Byrd to Flemish counterpoint, a resource Byrd seemed to be the only English composer to make full use of.  From 1591 to his death he moved to Essex to be close to his wealthy patrons.

Byrd wrote extensive keyboard music and is featured in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.  He wrote much music for domestic chamber ensembles, such as music for viol consort, and used familiar forms such as galliards, pavanes, grounds and fantasias.


MIDI FILE - Hey ho To the greenwood (0'52'')

MIDI FILE - Ave Verum Corpus (3'05'')

MIDI FILE - From "The FitzWilliam Virginal Book": The Maydens Song (4'44'')

MIDI FILE - From "The FitzWilliam Virginal Book": Pavane et Galliarde (4'25'')

Thomas Tallis

Born in Greenwich some time around 1505, Tallis held the post of "jocular organorum" at the Dover Priory from 1532, St Mary-at-the-Hill in London from 1537 and at the Augustine Abbey in Waltham from 1538 to 1540.  Royal patronage followed; in 1543 he became Gentleman of the Chapel Royal under King Edward VI and continued in the post under Queens Mary and Elizabeth.

Tallis served alongside William Byrd, the two sharing the post of organist at court.  The two were to collaborate closely, receiving a joint patent for the publishing of both printed music and blank manuscript paper.  They were to attempt to exploit this license to its full extent with their joint venture of 1575, Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, or Cantiones Sacrae as it is more commonly known.  At the time it was not a great success, but has since supplied some of the two composers' most performed works.

More remarkable, however, is Tallis' motet for 40 voices, Spem in Alium.  A work of this complexity would be notable enough, but for Tallis to specify the positioning of the eight constituent choirs involved prefigures a use of spatial resources not fully exploited until several hundred years after his death.  The quality of the work precludes either of these extraordinary devices being perceived as a mere gimmick.

As one might expect from a composer who wrote (convincingly) for 40 voices, Tallis was a great contrapuntalist.  His works include masses, Magnificats, Lamentations and motets in Latin, but he was one of the first to set English words to church music.  He died in Greenwich in 1585.

- MIDI FILE - "Hear the voice and prayer" (1'16'')

- MIDI FILE - “Iam lucis orto sidere” (1’03’’)