15 February 2016

Making Merbecke Catholic Again

Most Anglicans, when they hear the name John Merbecke, probably think immediately of the very simple and plain setting used for “The Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion.” Each year in our parish we use this setting for some of the Sung Masses in Advent and Lent. Musically it’s not terribly exciting, but that’s the point of using it during this season. It’s tuneful but not overwhelming, and when it’s sung by the pure voices of children, it affords an interesting seasonal change.

The roots of this little setting couldn’t be more Anglican. In 1550, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had asked Merbecke to provide service music “containing so much of the Order of Common Prayer as is to be sung in Churches.” It was to be simple and able to be sung by everyone, and the requirement was “for every syllable a note.”

We don’t know anything about Merbecke’s musical education, but apparently he was an accomplished singer and organist. Born in c.1505, by 1531 his name heads the list of choristers at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. He was appointed Organist of St. George’s in 1541. The virulent protestantism creeping through Europe was making its way into England at that time, and Merbecke was drawn into it, even though he was serving at the King’s Royal Chapel. That was a strange time – King Henry had broken with Rome, but in many ways he remained conservative in his religion, and in those circumstances, Merbecke’s protestant sympathies forced him into a double life. Of course, it couldn’t last forever, and by 1543 his protestantism was revealed. He was accused of owning and writing heretical documents – something that was, in fact, true. Along with two other colleagues at St. George’s, Merbecke was arrested. Charged with being a heretic, he was condemned to death. Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, pleaded Merbecke’s case before the King, and he was given a reprieve. Released from his imprisonment, Merbecke returned to his post of Organist at St. George’s, where he stayed until his death in c.1585.

Although John Merbecke is probably best remembered for his 1550 work on the "Booke of Common Praier Noted," before the English Reformation he was a somewhat talented composer of liturgical music for the Catholic Church, although not many of his compositions survive. His "Missa Per arma iustitie" is still available, as well as the Marian anthem "Ave Dei patris filia." The antiphon "Domine Ihesu Christe" is probably one of his better works, although it’s more sturdy than beautiful.

John Merbecke became a convinced Calvinist, and he expressed great regret for his Catholic compositions. In fact, in 1550 he wrote, “…in the study of music and playing on organs, I consumed vainly the greatest part of My life.” It’s really his "Booke of Common Praier Noted," with its simple Communion setting, which has made Merbecke best known, and that wasn’t actually a work of composition; rather, it was a fitting of the words of the English liturgy to modified plainsong melodies.

I’ve wondered, as I hear his Communion setting being sung at a Catholic Mass, what he would think. I’m quite sure that if he had witnessed such a thing during his earthly life, he would have been appalled – but now that he has the knowledge which comes with eternity (and I do hope he’s spending it in heaven), I would imagine he appreciates the unexpected turn of events which has brought his music back to the Church in which he was baptized.