Composing Music Part 3 – Rounds, descants, polyphony

Project 10 – A contrapuntal trial


Definition of polyphony (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “round”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 21 Jul. 2011, Accessed 7 February 2023.)

Research Point
Elizabethan composers

William Byrd (1543-1623)

There is a considerable amount of music to choose from so I decided to choose the following three.

Ave Maria. Agnus Dei and Miserere Mei Deus

This is my first time hearing this music and I was blown away with its sound. The way the voices blend and combine it very much sounds like there is some instrument there, however the voice is an instrument isn’t it. You can hear that the sounds are religious even though the titles do give that away, but these songs are designed to be sung in vast churches and cathedrals of their day and would not seem out of place in larger churches and majestical cathedrals anywhere. The voices do the work. Ebbing and flowing and drawing you in. I can understand how his work was so important.

Looking at the three titles alone I did expect to hear something religious but when I heard it I thought this is very catholic in sound with the latin. I have read a lot about the Tudors and Henry VIII is my favourite era, so I know a lot about the Catholics and Protestants and Byrd is classed as Elizabethan. I decided to read up on him and discovered that he was actually a devout Catholic which under Elizabeth I was unheard of. Reading further I discovered his loyalty to Elizabeth and her government was unquestionable, very unusual for the time and for the laws that were in place. I think this makes his work unique in a way. Another note which I was pleased to find out was that he was organist at Lincoln Cathedral. This cathedral holds special memories for me as I spent summers there as a child as my grandmother is from there and we have some mementos of the cathedral here at home. I feel a little bit more connected to the composer as a result.

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)

I should have really looked at Tallis before Byrd as he was his mentor. The songs I chose were the following

If Ye Love Me, Purge Me, O Lord and Spem in Allium

Listening firstly to If Ye Love Me, knowing that he mentored Byrd this is not what I was expecting. Saying that, this is a lovely piece and you can hear that the lyrics are in English. Purge Me, O Lord. I took this to be a hymn. It sounded like it could have been a hymn and I did detect female voices in what I was hearing although I am not sure if this was standard. However the recordings I chose were by the Tallis Scholars and I would expect them to be as faithful to the original compositions as they could be. This leads me to Spem in Allium. Talk about amazing. I listened and I firstly loved the way the one voice started and then all the others come in. It sounded so important being sung and I imagined that there was an importance to it. I was so impressed and knowing that it is a feat of polyphony I thought I could source a copy of the score and look at it and see how it is done. As he is renowned for his counterpoint and this is important I decided to print the score for further reference and see how the voices move in the piece. Absolutely amazing and no wonder it is well regarded.

As noted previously I should maybe have looked at Tallis before Byrd. Again I was very surprised that like Byrd, Tallis was a devout Catholic, however as he was born in 1505 he would have been born during the reign Of Henry VIII and at that time England was a catholic country. I also noted that he was appointed Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal and served under Henry VIII, Edward VII, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, so he was well regarded. Whilst doing a search it did state that “Spem in Allium ” may have been written to honour Queen Mary, a catholic, in defiance of Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, which I found very intriguing from a historical point of view. I didn’t delve any further into this though.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)

The pieces I have chosen to listen to are as follows.

Hosanna to the son of David, Nunc Dimittis, and Magnificat

Whilst picking out some songs to listen to, I stumbled upon the organ pieces and I did have a listen but decided to concentrate on the pieces with vocals to hear the polyphony more distinctively. I did hear the polyphony in the organ pieces though.I read a little about Gibbons and he is considered, one of the last great figures of the English polyphonic school.

These pieces are religious in base but I do feel his pieces are more complex and polished that those that I have listened to before. The voices seem to have more movement in them than what I have heard before, more complexity and maybe more soundly structured. I wonder if his being a renowned organist had something to do with that. The pieces sound less catholic than Tallis and Byrd which maybe something to do with his associations with King James I and Charles I, both of a Protestant leaning. I enjoyed listening to them and I can imaging them lsounding even more magnificent in larger churches and cathedrals especially at the time when they were written.

Thomas Morley (1557-1602)

The first of the great English Madrigalists it was interesting to see what his pieces were like. From the pieces I chose I did not get any indication of any religious elements coming through. It was nice to know a little about him and that William Byrd may have influenced him into catholicism and but then he defected from the church. he was also influenced by Italian madrigals and indeed reworked some of these with English texts without any recognition of the Italian original composer, but this was apparently common at the time.

Sumer is acumen in

This was such a pleasant listen and was very reminiscent of the rounds that I covered earlier in this section. The structure is very simple lyrically, but melodically it is very very effective. The vocal harmonies blend in beautifully and come in at different points which make for something so complex sounding it is very effective.

The first Booke of Balletts too Five Voyces: No 11 Now is the month of maying

This was completely different from the previous piece. Here I can hear a tale being told, but combined with the polyphony I can appreciate why he is said to be the first of the great English madgrigalists

April is in my mistresses’ face

Again a different piece, maybe a later piece which has developed over time. It sounds more complex in the range of vocals and the tone of the piece,

John Dowland (1563-1626)

Thomas Campion (1567-1620)

Robert Johnson (1500-1560)


I found this a little hard to grasp at first and have gone with something I think sounds polyphonic but maybe with the rhythm following too much of a staged pattern.

I have uploaded this but before I proceed to the assignment I am going to refer to Chapter 16 in The AB Guide to Music Theory by Eric Taylor just to see if I can better grasp the technicalities before I proceed with composing the assignment.