In 1543, composer John Merbecke was condemned to death for having Catholic sympathies in Protestant England under Henry VIII. He was pardoned in the following year, and lived on to write The Booke of Common Praier Noted (in 1550), which set the new English liturgy into syllabic chant (one note per syllable). It was based on the old Sarum chants, from the 11th century Salisbury Cathedral’s Roman rites, and although his book was rendered obsolete in 1552 by a new prayer book (The Second Book of Common Prayer), it returned to use sometime around 1850.
When the Second Book came out, Merbecke joined the pro-Calvinists and other Reformers and condemned all music as vanity. Imagine! Giving up your life’s work—John Taverner had done the same thing in 1530, so it wasn’t unprecedented.
Merbecke’s family life and background are not very well-documented. The date of his birth is vague—it was sometime between 1505 and 1510, and it’s thought that he was born in Windsor or Beverly in Yorkshire, but that’s not certain either.
In 1531, he became a lay clerk (which means that he didn’t become a monk or a priest—musicians were often priests or monks because that was the best way to get an education if you weren’t of noble birth) at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, and later, he became the organist there. In 1543, he and four others were convicted of heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake. Stephen Gardiner (c1493-1555), Bishop of Winchester, intervened and he received a pardon. In 1544, after his release from prison, he returned to St. George’s and devoted his life to the study of Protestantism. (In other words, the charges against him weren’t false.)
An English Concordance of the Bible, which Merbecke had been preparing at the suggestion of a staunch supporter of royal supremacy, Richard Turner (d.c1565), was confiscated and destroyed as a result of his conviction and imprisonment. A later version of this work, the first of its kind in English, was published in 1550 with a dedication to Edward VI, who was king by then.
Although he composed Latin music for the Catholic church in his younger years, he’s best known for The Booke of Common Prayier Notes (1550), which was the first musical setting of the services described in the 1549 Prayer Book. His book was probably designed for use in parish churches rather than cathedrals and consists of simple monadic (no harmonies) music in the style of plainchant, written in block note neumes (see my post on the History of Music Notation for more on this), with the newly popular one-note-per-syllable style.
He died, probably while still organist at Windsor, about 1585. His son, Roger Merbecke (1536-1605), became a noted classical scholar and physician.
In the first half of the 19th century, political and religious reformer John Jebb (1736-1786) inspired a renewed interest in liturgical music within the Church of England. Jebb drew attention to Merbecke’s Prayer Book settings in 1841. In 1843, plainsong music for all the Anglican services was publicized, including nearly all of Merbecke’s settings, which had been adapted for the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, then in use.
During the latter half of the 19th century, there were many different editions of the Merbecke settings, particularly for the Communion Service. These settings were widely used until the 1662 Book of Common Prayer was supplanted by more modern liturgy in the late 20th century.
Other denominations than Church of England have used Merbecke’s settings, including the Roman Catholic Church, who used it for the new English language rite following the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 (Nicene Creed).
An amateur choir for mixed voices at Southwark Cathedral in London is named the Merbecke Choir in his honor, because Merbecke’s heresy trial was partly held at the church in 1543. Merbecke’s complete Latin music was recorded by The Cardinals’ Musick, under the direction of Andrew Carwood in 1996.
The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.
“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.