top of page

Properly English: In Nomine/16th-Century English Music for Viols

The MHS Review 403, VOL. 12, NO.7 • 1988

click on the cover to return to the table of contents

David M. Greene


not yet released.png

The fad for the musical genre called In Nomine was apparently almost as great in I 6th-century England as that for the waltz was in 19th-century Austria. The reason for its popularity, however, is considerably more obscure. Perhaps Roger North (ca. 1651-1734), a lawyer, M.P., and amateur musical theorist, came close when he wrote of it in its final decline. He called it "a sort of harmonious murmur rather than musick ... not unlike a confused singing of birds in a grove," and thought that it had been created for domestic use among peo­ple who "lived in tranquility and at ease." In other words, as with radio and TV to­day, it provided a sound to take their minds off of the silence.

Only in the post-World War II era have we discovered the In Nomine's origin. Recurring to Willi Apel's 1944 edition of the Harvard Dictionary, one finds him puzzled. He refutes someone's claim that it derives from the introit In nomine Jesu (In Jesus' Name), and notes that its cantus bears a close resemblance to the antiphon Gloria tibi Trinitatis (Glory to thee, O Trinity), but is stumped by the connection, if any. The earliest example known to him is one by John Taverner in the manuscript keyboard collection known as the Mulliner Book, copied down around or shortly after mid-century. But he concludes, "Why these compositions should be named In­nomine [sic!] is not clear."

The fact is that Apel had most of the pieces of the puzzle except maybe the basic one. The In Nomine actually originated with Taverner. One of his Masses, written before his exit from church music in 1537, is erected on the Gloria tibi antiphon. In this six-voice work, the setting on the Benedictus is in two sections. The briefer one, which pares the forces down to four voices, is to the words In nomine Domini (In the name of the Lord). Detached from the parent work, it became, for reasons that are not wholly apparent, a palpable hit. Copies circulated everywhere, and it appeared in various arrangements and transcriptions (see the Mulliner Book version).

Composers based similar pieces on Taverner's cantus or used phrases from the Benedictus fragment thematically. Later ef­forts preferred five parts to four, and as time wore on, very sophisticated treatments appeared. The movement peak­ed toward the end of Elizabeth's reign, fell off for a time, and then enjoyed a revival with the popularity of consort music in the next century before going into a final decline after about a hundred years from its start. (One reads that John Milton, com­poser, scribe, affluent moneylender, and father to the great poet, wrote a version in 40 parts, but it has, alas!, not survived.)

This record is limited to representations of the 16th-century In Nomine, which is purer. Warwick Edwards, apparently an authority on the genre, says in Grove that the influence of the Tavernian tradition on the 17th-century examples "is not a strong one," suggesting that some soi-disant ex­amples are mistitled. In fact three of the composers represented--Baldwin, Byrd, and Bull, the Three Bs of the In Nomine--­lived well into the 17th century, but I am willing to accept their efforts as being earlier.

Mr. Edwards' notes for this record con­fuse me in several places. For example, in Grove he says that Thomas Preston wrote one of the earliest In Nomines, but here he seems to say that Preston's O lux beata Trinitatis has nothing to do with the tradi­tion. Again in Grove, he cites as particularly interesting an In Nomine fantasia by the younger Alfonso Ferrabosco, whereas the two on the record are attributed to the father--perfectly possible, but bothersome. Finally, I am not sure whether all the pieces on the record are supposed to be somehow akin to In Nomines, or whether some are supposed to provide relief.

It took a while for it to sink in that the mysterious legend "Fretwork" on the cover [ of my review copy] is the name of the performing consort, but I shan't work myself into a fret over my obtuseness. Fret­work is properly English and has been in existence just two years this July.

Review of In Nomine page 11

bottom of page