Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521)

                             [Modern brass in St Albans Cathedral]

                             [Modern brass in St Albans Cathedral]


Fayrfax was one of the most notable composers of the reigns of Henry VII and VIII. Born in 1464 in Lincolnshire, he became a favourite of both Henrys. He joined the Chapel Royal in 1497 and was organist at St Albans Abbey. He famously led the Chapel Royal at the Field of the Cloth of Gold celebrations, the meeting in 1520 between Henry VIII and François I, and may have contributed music to it. The French side produced music by Mouton. Henry VIII appreciated him in particular, giving him various stipends and benefices throughout his career. 

Fayrfax’s surviving compositions include five Masses, ten Antiphons, two Magnificats, and a Salve Regina. His work appears in the Eton Choirbook among other sources, but it is thought that much has been lost, possibly because of Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries; six sacred works are known to have been lost. The surviving works are written on a grand scale; his mass movements and motets are often between 10 and 15 minutes long.

What to listen for: Fayrfax's music is written in a style typical of the early Tudor period in England. His works are most often composed for five voices: treble, mean, contratenor, tenor and bass. Together, these voice parts comfortably cover three octaves - a greater range than was typical of continental music from this period. These five voices are not by any means used throughout each work; Fayrfax frequently writes passages for just two or three parts, such as in the opening two sections in the video above. Then, when all five parts sing together at the words 'honestis caeli' the contrast is highly effective. As well as a wide tessitura, another element to listen out for is the frequent changes of metre (changing between duple and triple time). In the video above there is a shift half- way through the motet at the words 'Issachar quoque'.

Fayrfax was buried in the abbey church of St Albans, for which he composed numerous pieces, including a Missa Albanus. The modern brass reproduced above is copied from a drawing of 1642 of the original brass, long vanished from his grave. It shows him standing with his wife above the inscription: ‘Pray for the soules of Master Robert ffayrfax doctor of Music and Agnes his wife the which Robert deceased the XXIV day of October the year of our Lord God M. D. XXI on whose soules Jh[es]u have mercy Amen.’ 


Further reading

Sandon, N. (2001) ‘Fayrfax, Robert’, New Grove Dictionary of Music, Vol.6, Oxford: Oxford University Press