Christopher Trundle considers the value of Merbecke
Perhaps performed more regularly than the work of any other Tudor composer, John Merbecke’s setting of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service (altered for the 1662 version many years later) has been a solid part of the Anglican tradition for many years. Indeed, to many Merbecke is the very sound of Anglicanism and is still sung in parish churches not just in England, but around the world. It is a strikingly simple setting of the texts, which nonetheless conveys something of their sanctity and dignity, and the balance of ease of access and profound effect it encapsulates is rare.
It was felt after the publication of the Prayer Book of 1549 that it should be possible to sing the services it contained as in the past, and so Archbishop Cranmer commissioned Merbecke to produce a setting ‘containing so much of the Order of Common Prayer as is to be sung in Churches.’ Concerned as he was with accessibility, he directed that there should be ‘for every syllable a note’, avoiding the more complex plainsong which had been in use before the Reformation.
‘The Book of Common Prayer Noted’ which was produced in 1550 contained not only music for the Holy Communion (where there were even settings for the Introit, Offertory and Communion sentences), but enabled almost all of Mattins, Evensong and much of the Burial of the Dead to be sung as well.
But it is easily forgotten that Merbecke himself was not exactly of the Catholic tradition. While organist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor in 1543 he was tried alongside others for heresy and sentenced to be burnt. He had been compiling an English concordance of the Bible and was in possession of various protestant books; it was clear that Merbecke had been strongly influenced by Calvinism. It was only thanks to the intervention of Bishop Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, that he was granted a reprieve at the last minute. Merbecke was allowed to return to Windsor, where he continued as organist of St George’s Chapel until his death in about 1585. It is fortunate for the English choral tradition that he was allowed to live.
Use of Merbecke’s setting of the Holy Communion service though, like his desire for composition, sadly waned. The successive Prayer Book revisions and attendant protestant sympathies rendered the desire to sing the liturgy largely defunct.
In fact very few original copies of ‘The Book of Common Prayer Noted’ exist today. Merbecke, who himself had been a composer of music for the Latin liturgy before the Reformation took hold, largely regretted his previous efforts: ‘in study of music and playing on organs, I consumed vainly the greatest part of my life’, he wrote. His Latin repertoire is rarely if ever performed now, capable though it is. What he would have thought of his work’s current use we can only guess.
But the rediscovery of ‘The Prayer Book Noted’ during the ascendency of the Oxford Movement meant that Merbecke’s work would live on nonetheless.
The Anglo-Catholic desire to reclaim ancient norms of liturgical celebration for the liturgy of the Church of England has bequeathed numerous gifts to the modern Anglican tradition; Anglicans have long been able to take elements from outwith the Catholic tradition and put them to good use in our liturgy, and Merbecke’s setting of the liturgy, sung not just by professional choirs but by congregations the world over, is one of the finest parts of our patrimony. ND