The Eton Choirbook

The Eton choirbook (Eton College MS. 178), the leading source of late fifteenth-century English music, is a splendid production with fine illuminated initial letters and an attractive use of red ink for coloration and the text of solo sections. It measures 23 1/2 by 17 inches, each stave being about three-quarters of an inch high; thus it is eminently practicable for a sizeable group to sing from. It fits the description of 'a grete ledger of prick song ii folio tum cuncta' in an Eton College inventory of 1531, because the second folio does begin with '-tum Cuncta' (from 'luctum/ Cunctaque peccamina', words used in John Browne's O Maria salvatoris mater). It is unique among manuscripts of its period in still being preserved in its original home.

An index at the end lists sixty-one antiphons, and this undoubtedly marks completion of the manuscript's first layer. In the body of the manuscript the antiphons are grouped according to the number of voices used: those with most parts come first. About one third are now missing or seriously incomplete. All the survivors are in one hand, and must have been copied mainly, if not entirely, in the 1490s: we can deduce from an inscription at the end of the piece that Richard Davy's O Domine coeli terraeque creator was composed between 1490 and 1492 ; yet the illuminated 'O' in the mean part of the same work contains the arms of Henry Bost, Provost of Eton, who died in 1502.

An index at the beginning includes five more antiphons (two of which have survived fragmentarily), twenty-four Magnificats (four of them complete, four imperfectly preserved), and Davy's Passion (seriously incomplete). The works of this group are in the same hand as those of the first layer, and were probably copied only shortly after them. Robert Wylkynson's nine-part Salve regina and his thirteen-part round Jesus autem transiens/Credo in unum Deum, which appear in neither index and are written in a later, less elegant hand (perhaps Wylkynson's own), were almost certainly inserted between 1500 and 1515 when their composer was master of the choristers at Eton.

Although there are serious losses from the manuscript, the remains are sufficient to give a good picture of the large-scale votive antiphon and the alternatim Magnificat in the last twenty or thirty years of the fifteenth century. Without them we should know nothing of the work of that truly great composer John Browne, have no complete composition by Richard Davy, and only two pieces by Walter Lambe.

The Eton choirbook is by far the most important of the few English sources surviving from the first part of our period: in fact it is unquestionably one of the greatest monuments of English music in any age.

In the 1490s the Eton manuscript cannot but have represented the summit of English musical endeavor; yet it cannot on the other hand have been quite the isolated achievement which it now appears to be. its composers belonged to a wide variety of major choral institutions, and the kind of large-scale pieces which Eton contains must have been sung, composed and copied in many or all of these; and although we have no other large choirbooks before the Lambeth and Caius manuscripts of 1510 or later, we do have several fragmentary survivals of 'Eton-style' music. British Museum Additional MS. 54324, which consists of three bifolia from a small choirbook copied in about 1475, has, among some considerably earlier music by Plummer, Dunstable and Dufay (Caput Kyrie), sizeable fragments from a five-part Gaude flore virginali which has much in common with the earlier Eton music. The ten leaves which constitute Bodleian Library MS. Mus. e. 21 formed the original covers of the late sixteenth-century Sadler partbooks. They were cut for this purpose from five folios of a choirbook which dated from the late fifteenth century (or possibly a little later). The leaves contain fragments of the Gloria and Credo of a six-part Mass which seems to be based on the 'Veni creator' melody (or the identical 'Salvator mundi') transposed down a second. The Bodleian Library also has two complete folios from a choirbook of c. 1490 which was similar in size and character to the Eton choirbook. The fragment contains the ending of Fayrfax's Magnificat Regali and the beginning of another (unidentified) Magnificat.

Works such as the Eton antiphons and Magnificats would have been beyond the smaller, less proficient choirs; some of these presumably used the kind of music preserved in lesser sources, the Pepys, Ritson and York manuscripts.

The most outstanding traits of the Eton music are a richness and brilliance of sonority not found in earlier music or as a rule in contemporary Continental work and outstanding rhythmic vitality and melodic variety. On the other hand, there is often a rather distant relationship between words and music.

The origin and early history of the magnificent Eton style are obscure, because of the paucity of late fifteenth-century sources and the lack of precise chronological data about individual works or composers' lives and movements. The existence of some broad parallelism between the stylistic developments of Continental and English music after Dunstable, particularly in the adoption of the harmonic bass part and in greater complexity of rhythm and phrase structure, suggests that there was some cross-Channel exchanging of ideas until about 1450 or even a little later; such men as John Plummer (d. c. 1462) and Walter Frye (d. 1474) are indeed known from both English and Continental sources. But it is clear from the distinctive character of the Eton style that by the 1470s at the latest (given William Horwood's death in 1484) English music was developing more or less in isolation from the 'mainstream' of activity in France and the Netherlands. Indeed it is noticeable that neither the Eton choirbook nor the minor sources contain Continental music, thus ignoring completely such men as Ockeghem, Obrecht and Josquin. The latest pieces of foreign church music which have been traced in England are the fragments from Dufay's Missa Caput of c. 1440-50 in B.M. Add. MS. 54324 and in two fly-leaves from the Coventry Leet Book of c. 1450. By 1500 when the choirbook was virtually complete, English music was decidedly insular and conservative; on the Continent Josquin, pioneer of pervasive imitation, was already in middle age.

Twenty-five composers' names appear in the Eton choirbook. The largest and finest contributions are by John Browne, Walter Lambe and Richard Davy. Next in importance are William Cornysh, Robert Wylkynson, Robert Fayrfax (known chiefly from other sources), and Horwood. Most composers have only one or two pieces to their credit.


The oldest composer named in the manuscript is Dunstable, but the five-part Gaude flore virginali ascribed to him has been lost. The index tells us that his piece had a range of twenty-one notes, three octaves minus a note, much wider than any of Dunstable's known works or than other music from the first half of the fifteenth century. It is accordingly possible if not probable that the ascription is wrong although the ascriptions in general seem to be accurate, for where several works are attributed to the same composer there is normally the unity of manner which confirms common authorship. /p>

The following seem to be the oldest composers by whom at least one work has survived: Horwood, Gilbert Banester (represented in the Pepys manuscript), Nesbett (presumably the J. Nesbet of the same manuscript). Richard Hygons, Edmund Turges (joined the Fraternity of St Nicholas, the London Guild of Parish Clerks in 1469), and Hugh Kellyk.


The only remaining composer with more than one complete work surviving in Eton is Fawkyner, of whose life we know nothing. He has left us Gaude virgo salutata and Gaude rosa sine spina, two very long antiphons, both striking works with some exciting florid display.

Composers with a single work in the manuscript are Robert Hacomplaynt or Hacomblene (King's scholar at Eton in 1469, Provost of King's 1509-28 -- his name is on the King's Chapel lectern), John Hampton (Worcester Priory, 1484-1522)130 Nicholas Huchyn, William, monk of Stratford, Edmund Sturton, and John Sutton (Fellow of Magdalen, Oxford in 1476 and of Eton in 1477). The first three and the last of these wrote settings of 'Salve regina'. Stratford composed a four-part Magnificat. Sturton, presumably the composer of the sixpart Ave Maria ancilla Trinitatis in the Lambeth choirbook, wrote the Gaude virgo mater Christi whose six voices cover a fifteen-note range.

A leaf from the Eton Choirbook

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