English composers of the mid-16th century had to deal with the political and religious tribulations associated with Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. These had considerable effects on their composing of music for the liturgy. Even a hundred years later composers enjoy little peace and quiet either as they felt the consequences of the political upheaval which resulted in the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. It led to Thomas Tomkins losing his position as organist of Worcester Cathedral. In 1646 the city surrendered to the Parliamentary forces, and as a result cathedral services were almost completely discontinued.
It was a matter of good fortune that this happened when Tomkins was already at an advanced age. In the decades before he had been a most respected composer and organist who was mainly connected to Worcester Cathedral as well as the Chapel Royal. Some of his more ambitious compositions may have been written for the latter institution. One example is the Te Deum & Jubilate
for ten voices and organ which is recorded here.
Little is known about his early years, and that includes his musical education. However, it seems certain that William Byrd was one of his teachers: one of the madrigals in the collection of 1622 was dedicated to him. He also studied carefully Thomas Morley's treatise A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke
of 1597. In his vocal music the influence of Thomas Tallis is clearly discernible whereas in his keyboard works he is not only inspired by Byrd but also by John Bull. This disc includes three specimens of his keyboard style. The most famous of them is A Sad Pavan for these distracted times
written under the impression of the defeat of the Royalists by the Parliamentarians.
Tomkins was a versatile composer who was respected by his peers. He composed madrigals which were printed in 1622; another madrigal was included by Morley in the collection The Triumphes of Oriana
of 1601, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. The influence of contemporary Italian composers which is notable in many madrigals of the time is absent in Tomkins's madrigals. That is further evidence of his conservatism which also comes to the fore in many of his sacred works. The Sixth Service
, from which the Magnificat
and the Nunc dimittis
are taken, is an example of this conservative tendencies. This Service, scored for five voices and organ, is considerably more modest than the Third ('Great') Service
from which we hear the Te Deum
and the Jubilate
, strangely enough in reverse order and divided by the organ piece Clarifica me Pater
That said, there are some pieces with notable text expression. The most famous example is the opening item, When David heard that Absalom was slain
which has traces of the sacred madrigal. Another striking example of Tomkins's skills in setting a text is Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom
which includes remarkable dissonants on the name Jesus Christ which is clearly inspired by the previous text episodes. Behold, I bring you glad tidings
is another impressive piece with a remarkable florid organ part and an eloquent dotted rhythm on the first phrase of the doxology.
This disc delivers an interesting and useful survey of Tomkins's sacred and keyboard music reflecting the most important parts of his oeuvre. Most items have probably been recorded before, although I could not find other recordings of Almighty God, which hast knit together
and Behold, I bring you glad tidings
. Even so, this is a very attractive disc, not only because of the choice of music, but also because of the performances. The singing is excellent, not just by the plenary choir but also by its individual members who take care of the solo passages in the verse anthems. Only now and then is a slight vibrato in the lower voices noticeable but that hardly spoils the overall result. In this respect this disc is considerably better than the Purcell/Humfrey disc which I reviewed some time ago elsewhere
. The expressive elements come off very well. The organ pieces are nicely played by Freddie James.
Jeremy Summerly wrote the useful liner-notes, but could have given a little more biographical information about Tomkins.
Johan van Veen