John Taverner 1490 (?) -1545
John Taverner was probably born in Lincolnshire; according to one of his letters he had relatives there. He was a guest singer at St Botolph’s Church in Boston in 1524, but his first significant appointment that we know of was in 1526, as Organist and Master of Choristers at Christ Church College, Oxford. He was the first to hold this appointment, granted by Cardinal Wolsey, who had founded the College two years earlier. There is a rare record from an Oxford music scholar who actually heard Taverner: ‘I stood at the choir door and heard Master Taverner play, and others of the chapel there, sing – with and among whom I myself was wont to sing also; but now my singing and music were turned to sighing and musing.’ Taverner left the College in 1530, and there were no known further musical appointments.
His surviving music includes 8 Masses, 4 antiphons, and 22 motets. His best-known works are the motet Dum transisset Sabbatum, and two masses, the Western Wynde Mass, and the Mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas. The Benedictus of the latter inspired a number of instrumental works with the title ‘In nomine’.
Taverner settled in Boston, Lincolnshire, where he was a small and relatively well-off landowner, and held some civic positions; he was buried in St Botolph’s Church, where there is a modern plaque to him (below). His life and work are the subject of a modern opera, called simply ‘Taverner’, by Peter Maxwell Davies.
What to listen for
Taverner's music bears many of the hallmarks of the earlier English style of Robert Fayrfax, including expansive, melismatic writing with complex rhythms. You will also hear a wide range of vocal writing in many pieces - from low basses to high treble parts. What Taverner adds to the the earlier style is a more focused approach to imitation, where a fragment of melody is sung successively by each voice part. The refinement of this technique leads directly to the music of his English successors - Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.
Benham, H. (2003) John Taverner: His Life and Music, Aldershot: Ashgate.