The name, at least, of Nicholas Ludford is familiar to most students of English music. He is generally perceived as a lesser contemporary of Robert Fayrfax (Ludford's festal masses are preserved with those by Fayrfax in the great early 16th-century choirbooks at Lambeth Palace, London, and Caius College, Cambridge),and all that is commonly known of him is that his music defines the gap between Fayrfax and John Taverner. However, most are unaware that, with eleven complete and three incomplete mass settings (with a record of another three which are now lost), Ludford was the most prolific composer of masses in Tudor England. He possessed compositional skills equal to any of his better-known contemporaries, and was indeed one of the greatest composers for the pre-Reformation church in England.
Together Ludford and Fayrfax indeed dominate the Lambeth and Caius choirbooks; but there are important differences between them musically and in personal circumstances. Ludford's music, while rarely very florid, is noticeably more so than Fayrfax's; his surviving output is more varied, for it contains some six-part writing and the set of threepart Lady Masses; and unlike Fayrfax (or indeed Taverner or any other major composer) he frequently sets the Mass Credo complete. While Fayrfax received every academic honour, Ludford had no degree; and while Fayrfax enjoyed very great royal recognition, Ludford was not even a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, despite his being at St Stephen's, Westminster which adjoined the Royal Palace of Westminster.
Nothing is known of Ludford's early career. His date of birth is estimated to be 1485, an assumption which is drawn largely from his entry into membership of the Fraternity of St Nicholas - a guild of London parish clerks - in 1521 (Fayrfax was admitted in 1502, and Taverner in 1514). From after the turn of the century Ludford became attached to St Stephen's, a college of secular canons, where he remained until its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1547.
His association with St Stephen's obviously began in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, for a Mass of St Stephen, Lapidaverunt Stephanum, is preserved in the Lambeth and Caius choirbooks. But it is only in 1547, in connection with the dissolution of the collegiate foundation, that we find a written record of Ludford's work at St Stephen's. He was then serving as verger, a post which apparently had special musical duties there. After the dissolution he received a pension until 1555-6, which is presumably the time of his death. The date of his birth is unknown, but c. 1485 is a reasonable conjecture: on the one hand he was probably older than Taverner (born in the 1490s) since much of his music is preserved in earlier sources, and on the other younger than Fayrfax because if born in or before the mid 1460s he would have been very old to be still in office in 1547.
Ludford's restricted circumstances resulted in his musical reputation being rather local and rather short-lived where Fayrfax's was wide and enduring, although forty years after his death, Thomas Morley mentions Ludford as one of the listed 'authorities' for his famous Introduction to Practicall Musicke (London, 1597). Most of his work is preserved in four Henrician sources, the Lambeth choirbook, which may have originated at St Stephen's; Caius, which is possibly related to this; British Museum Royal Appendix MSS. 45-48, which may conceivably be in Ludford's own hand (as explained below); and Peterhouse. There is no Ludford source later than Peterhouse. This neglect in the second half of the sixteenth century was unwarranted and unfortunate, because Ludford is a very accomplished composer.
Reasons for this neglect may stem from the modest circumstances of his life. Ludford was not well known in his own day and remained politically and musically inconspicuous throughout his career; he appears not to have taken a university degree and his name is not recorded in conjunction with any major events. The few contemporary references show him to be a retiring personality and deeply religious. Whereas most composers who survived the English Reformation adapted their styles to accommodate changing liturgical requirements (such as Tallis and Sheppard), Ludford apparently stopped composing altogether after about 1535. It is believed that this was due either to old age and increasing infirmity or to the fact that his attachment to Catholicism was such that he could not continue to produce music for the reformed church.
The Lady Masses are the sole contents of Royal Appendix MSS. 45-48, four very neat and accurately copied partbooks which have the arms of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon stamped on their leather covers. Since a manuscript devoted to a single composer's works is exceptional, one wonders if Ludford himself produced them as a gift to the royal couple. The presence of Catherine's arms as well as Henry's gives as the outside dates for the manuscript's production 1509, the year of the royal marriage, and 1533, the year of the divorce; but the latest probable date would be several years before 1533, because the two royal establishments were separate from 1531, and the divorce had been in Henry's mind since the late 1520s.
The Lady Masses constitute the only sizeable body of three-part church music surviving from sixteenth-century England. The scoring for treble, mean and countertenor, without use of the bass register, and the frequent presentation of cantus firmi in the lowest voice are traits as apparently old-fashioned as the choice of three parts itself, but the style and cadence practice of the Lady Masses are very much of the early sixteenth century; in particular imitation is often present, and there are occasional brief sequences. Much of Ludford's writing in the Lady Masses has a notable grace and fluency, with a fondness for movement in parallel thirds which is slightly more pronounced in his work than in that of other composers.