John Taverner is undoubtedly the greatest of England's early sixteenth-century composers by virtue of the uniquely compelling character of much of his work and the historical importance of a few pieces such as the MeaneMass. He stands very high indeed among English musicians of any age--although it would be idle to pretend that he rivals Dunstable or Byrd.
Not a great deal is known of Taverner's life, but he is nevertheless the first English composer who begins to emerge as a real person rather than as just a name in a history book. Probably we even have some idea of what he looked like from the sketches (or caricatures) at the beginnings of all the parts of Gloria tibi Trinitas in the Forrest-Heyther part-books.
It is generally assumed that Taverner was born in the 1490s; he certainly had a brother William born between 1495 and 1505. By 1525 Taverner was a clerk fellow at the Collegiate Church of Tattershall in Lincolnshire. In Autumn 1526, although apparently reluctant to relinquish this post and forgo the prospect of a 'good' marriage, he accepted Cardinal Wolsey's invitation to become the first master of the choristers at the newly-founded Cardinal College, Oxford (now Christ Church). While at the College he became involved in a small way with the Lutherans who were active there, and in 1528 had a lucky escape from punishment. John Foxe's comment that 'the Cardinal, for his music, excused him, saying that he was but a musician' is well known; less well known, and even less complimentary, was Dean Higden's opinion that Taverner was 'unlearned and not to be regarded'. Taverner's departure from the College in April 1530 may have been somehow connected with the disturbances of 1528. That the influence of Lutheranism was lasting is suggested by his working in the late 1530s as an agent of Thomas Cromwell, chiefly in dissolving monasteries. His efforts here have often led to his being labelled a fanatic and a cruel persecutor; in fact letters he wrote to Cromwell do not support this view, but show concern by him for the welfare of the dispossessed Boston friars. After his work for Cromwell was completed Taverner seems to have settled down to the life of a well-to-do citizen and small landowner in Boston. He served as an official in the influential Guild of Corpus Christi in the town, and became one of the twelve aldermen when Boston was made a borough in June 1545, four months before his death. He is buried with his wife Rose underneath the bell-tower of Boston Parish Church.
It has been widely assumed that Taverner completely abandoned musical composition as a result of his contacts with Lutheranism; this is largely on the strength of a marginal note in the 1583 edition of John Foxe's Actes and Monuments that he 'repented him very much that he had made songs to popish ditties in the time of his blindness'. Some scholars however have considered that the term 'popish ditties', instead of extending to all types of church music for the Latin rite, would have applied mainly to such items as votive antiphons in honour of the Virgin or the Saints. It is of course unclear exactly what Foxe himself understood by 'popish ditties'-and indeed whether the term was his or Taverner's own-but one imagines that at least in 1583 the texts of the Mass would have been considered 'popish'. The most important point perhaps is that Taverner did not, so far as we know, hold any musical post after 1530: so that (even if Foxe's marginal note were not just hearsay) Taverner's opportunities and motives for composing would have been limited, and it therefore remains likely that all or most of his church music was written before his leaving Oxford when he was still only in his thirties. With Taverner then we apparently have the first known conflict between a musician's conscience and his work, and can see the first effects of the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century on music in England. Taverner's historical preeminence here is complemented by his being the first composer in whose work we can trace some of the important new stylistic trends of the sixteenth century.
Most of Taverner's music, it is true, remains within the same tradition as Fayrfax's and Ludford's; but there is often greater textural unity because of an increased, sometimes a significantly increased, use of imitation, and these is some easing of rhythmic complexity resulting most obviously from a more cautious use than formerly of syncopated patterns involving dotted semibreves. Florid detail is more important to Taverner than to Fayrfax, but some passages, for example parts of Ave Dei Patris filia, are as restrained as anything by the older master. In a few of Taverner's smaller-scale works, including the MeaneMass, the stylistic advances are very marked; a quite new approach to imitation is the most momentous of these.
Taverner's work is considerably more varied than that of any composer yet discussed, for we have not only eight Masses by him, but numerous votive antiphons in various degrees of completeness, and an important group of alternatim pieces among which Magnificats and responds are the most important items.
The Masses show the range of Taverner's achievement particularly well. The basic division is between the three six-part ones, large-scale works based on plainsong cantus firmi, and shorter settings for four or five voices, in general less elaborate and never based in plainsong. But there is considerable variety within each group, particularly the latter, which consists of the Meane Mass, the two derived Masses Mater Christi and Small Devotion, Playn Song, and Western Wynde.
Taverner's antiphons like his Masses may be divided into elaborate works of festal proportions and shorter simpler pieces. The former group comprises Ave Dei Patris filia, Gaude plurimum and O splendor gloriae.
The alternatim works comprise Magnificats,responds, a prose and a Te Deumfor the Office, and a few short pieces for the Lady Mass and for the Proper of other votive Masses. Important features of Taverner's contribution to music for the Office are the appearance of the first choral responds and the clearer statement of proper melodies than generally in the past.