Dr Tye was a peevish and humoursome man, especially in his latter days, and sometimes playing on the organ in the chapel of Queen Elizabeth, which contained much music but little delight to the ear She would send the verger to tell him that he played out of tune, whereupon he sent word that her ears were out of tune.

Anthony à Wood

Christopher Tye, a contemporary of John Sheppard and Thomas Tallis, was very much a composer for the Reformed Church, and seems to have flourished chiefly in the reign of Edward VI. In the dedication to Tye's Actes of the Apostles (London, 1553), a close personal relationship with the young king is implied, and the title page itself describes the composer as 'one of the Gentlemen of his grace's most honourable chapel'. Lines in a play written in 1605 go further to suggest that Tye actually taught music to Edward, who is reported as quoting his father, Henry VIII, as saying, 'England one God, one truth, one doctor hath for music's art, and that is Doctor Tye, admired for skill in music's harmony.' After Tallis, Christopher Tye is the most widely known composer from the mid sixteenth-century period, largely because of his important contribution to the earliest music of the Reformed church. His Latin work has suffered a number of bad losses, but what remains complete shows a very considerable technical command.

Tye was born about 1500, if he was the choirboy of that name who sang at King's, Cambridge from 1508 to 1513. He was certainly a lay-clerk there in the late 1520s and the 1530s, and received the Cambridge degrees of Bachelor and Doctor of Music in 1536 and 1545. From 1541 to 1561 he was master of the choristers at nearby Ely Cathedral. Tye was a member of Edward VII's Chapel, and dedicated his Acts of the Apostles to the young king. He may even have been Edward's music teacher. Tye's fragmentary Domine Deus coelestis, a prayer for a king, must have been written with Edward in mind because it seems to have been written at or near the beginning of a reign and for a young king, as the following passage indicates, in which the writer asks that the king may be 'sharpsighted in executing the affairs of the realm, circumspect and scrupulous in giving justice': 'Da ut ... perspicax in obeundis regni negotiis, consideratus et diligens injudicia afferenda, constans et sedulus in tua, Domine, Catholica fide et religione restauranda et tuenda vehemens et invictus.'1 Use of the word 'Catholica' in the quotation does not contradict an Edwardine dating; it appears in the English Prayer Book Creeds, and the Anglican Church considers itself both Catholic and Reformed. The 'restoring of the Catholic faith' mentioned in Tye's piece was not a plea for the return to papal allegiance, but for that restoring of the church to its primitive state, free of medieval abuses, which was the aim of the Reformers.Domine Deus coelestismust be the only Latin composition definitely assignable to Edward's reign, but Quaesumus omnipotens may be contemporary with it.

In 1560 Tye was ordained, and the following year became Rector of Doddington in Cambridgeshire, resigning his position as Magister Choristarum at Ely Cathedral (a post which he maintained until at least 1559 when he was also paid as the organist), being succeeded by Robert Whyte. He died in 1572 or 1573. One imagines that Tye's work as a composer was more or less finished by the time he resigned his Ely post and moved to the country. His regular membership of the Chapel Royal had apparently ceased before 1561 as he is never mentioned in the Check-Book. However Anthony à Wood's well-known anecdote, cited above, despite its author's reputation for unreliability, suggests that the break with London was not total.

Tye is unlikely to have written much Latin church music after the death of Henry VIII. He did remain at Ely during Mary's reign, but his personal position may well have been strongly Protestant: this is suggested by his close connections with Edward VI and his acquaintance with the Protestant firebrand Richard Cox, who was first Archdeacon of Ely and later Bishop.

Probably Tye's most important Latin work is the six-part Mass Euge bone,which has been supposed widely, but without any definite evidence, to have been his MusD exercise of 1545. The title is a mystery. There was no ritual item 'Euge bone'; but the Common of one Confessor or Bishop had a respond and antiphon 'Euge serve bone'. The melody of neither is used in the Mass however, and there appears to be no other borrowed material in it. The six-part scoring implies use on an important occasion, but the Mass is a fairly compact one. The desire for compression led most obviously to the employment of just six chords for 'Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus' (compare the treatment of the same words in Tallis's four-part Mass, and of Holy, Holy, Holy' in the English arrangements of Taverner's Small Devotion andMeane Mass made about three years after Tye is supposed to have composed Euge bone). There is some limited repetition of sets of imitative entries; but this technique is unusual in Tye's Latin music, other examples being confined to the textless, probably instrumental,Amavit and Rubum quem. Antiphony in which the lower three voices answer the upper three, is found in a few places, but the second statement is less of an exact repetition than it is in antiphonal writing by Taverner.

In his two other Masses however, Tye does seem to be in Taverner's debt. One is a setting of Western Wynde which stylistic considerations indicate is later than Taverner's work. in fact it seems designed to complement or 'answer' Taverner's similarly-scored piece, because all twenty-nine statements of the tune come in the mean, the one voice from which Taverner excluded it.

While Tye was undoubtedly one of the most important composers of his generation little of his music has come down to us, and much that has survived is only fragmentary. It is most regrettable that a number of six-part compositions only have one part extant, such as the antiphons Ave caput Christi, Christus resurgens, andDomine Deus caelestis, as well as a Magnificat andTe Deum, all of which must have been substantial works.

A Partial Christopher Tye Discography  |   IV M: England Through 1635  |   Latin Church Music 1460-1575: The Composers


1. It is probably no accident that the opening of Domine Deus coelestisbriefly corresponds with the opening of the psalm-motet In quo corriget ('Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?).  Return to Text