About two years ago, while I was casting about once again for little-known literature to explore, a friend reminded me that half of the old Musica Britannica edition of Thomas Tomkins consisted of obscure pieces based on a plainchant cantus firmus. I – and I suspect 99.9% all other harpsichordists – had always passed over them with a shrug; partly because they looked destined for the liturgy, and hence for the organ, but mainly because they look so dry at first sight. One mostly finds two imitative voices against long notes in Gothic style. I decided to give them a closer look anyway, and was ashamed when I realized what I had been missing all these years. But I wasn’t the only one to have underestimated some of these works. This is what the 1980 “New Grove’s” had to say:

“All these ingenious works inspire admiration rather than affection, and are best described as ‘excellent for the hand’, rather than ‘for the matter’.”

The words in quotes repeat some of Tomkins’ own comments on old pieces in a manuscript he owned, which show his respect for the technical demands or high musical craftsmanship he found there. He apparently thought, long into his old age, that a conservative style was appropriate to the church. One shudders to think what he would have had to say about “Contemporary Christian Music”.

The “Grove” writer’s evident disdain might apply to some of the 18 surviving pieces in this category, but not to all. A handful can be counted as excellent both “for the hand” and “the matter”. The biggest surprise is found in a manuscript formerly the property of the venerable Oxford Music School, whose door is still visible in the Old Schools Quadrangle: the longest and finest piece of the group, an Offertory running to nearly 400 semibreves. The MS is now kept at the new Bodleian Library.

The foundation of this tremendous masterwork goes back centuries before Tomkins, to the first liturgical use of the organ. To the long notes of a cantus firmus were added a new melody or melodies; note(s) against note, or point(s) against point: counterpoint. Such pieces were originally based on Gregorian, Ambrosian or Sarum plainchant. In this case, the point of departure is a five-note theme which, after an initial exposition in fantasia style, is always present – now in the discant, now in the bass, now between surrounding voices which interplay in imitation or strict canon: an ostinato, or as the English then called it, a “ground”.

The theme looks like a paraphrase of the priest’s intonation of the Sarum antiphon Felix namque, a perennial favorite for keyboard offertories with the chant in long notes. The first known example goes back to the 15th century. It was the moment in the service when the organist was expected to shine. Two extraordinarily long works on this cantus firmus by Tallis can be counted among the most elaborate and difficult showpieces of the English early keyboard literature. Whether or not these were ever employed as true organ offertories, such pieces would have done service as learning and practice material on the clavichord and virginals. Repeated long notes for the cantus firmus, possibly for a second player as part of an English tradition, would certainly be redundant on the organ.

The present work contains passages of such rowdiness that its suitability for the Anglo-Catholic Church seems highly doubtful. Add to this the fact that Felix namque is only hinted at, and one might question whether the title is even accurate. A note to the Musica Britannica edition states that it was misread by “some previous commentators” as Tho Tomkins affection. It actually reads “Mr. Tho Tomkins offertory / upon thes nots”, but as can be seen from the scan below (courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford), the misreading is understandable to a certain extent. “Affection”, at the time meaning “emotional state”, would be an excellent imaginary title. After the initial phase of mental stability, the piece becomes something akin to the portrait of a bipolar personality.

Tomkins included the Offertory in his list of “lessons of worthe”, part of the group in the key of A, which is found in the main source for his keyboard works: the priceless late autograph collection kept in the Bibliothčque nationale, Paris (Rés. 1122). The dated pieces begin in 1646, the year of the second siege of Worcester by the Parliamentarian army, and end in 1654, when Tomkins was forced to move to the country manor where he lingered out the last two years of his life with his son and daughter-in-law. The elderly master, in Worcester exile from Cromwell’s London, at first planned a fair copy of works by his mentors, Byrd and Bull, but began to enter new pieces of his own in such a chaotic way that the MS resisted proper inspection until Stephen D. Tuttle began his work in Paris in 1948. It was the last volume of the eight which Tomkins had in his own library. All the others, with one possible exception, are lost.

The unique surviving copy of the Offertory itself is part of a much smaller collection (Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Mus. Sch. c. 93) with close associations to Tomkins’ own circle. Three short autograph pieces are dedicated to his friend Edward Thornborough, archdeacon of Worcester cathedral, son of a former bishop. The Bodleian’s note to the MS says the titles “were written by an almost contemporary hand”. To my untrained eye the title of the Offertory looks very much like Tomkins’ own signature as found in the Paris MS. In fact, the notation of the whole piece looks indistinguishable to me from other examples of his handwriting. There are different inks, and different intensities which might be results of the day or the hour. But I defer to the experts.

1637 was a year of severe plague in Worcester. My best guess is that this masterpiece from the composer’s prime is a personal, propitiatory offering, not an offertory in the liturgical sense. If Tomkins did have the old antiphon in mind, he rather sacrilegiously modified the opening intonation to allow for more favorable harmonic progressions and climactic statements in parallel tenths and canon, and limited himself to a mere five notes instead of using the rest of the chant, as Tallis and others did.

The “ground” theme, once it appears after the fantasia-style opening, gets 55 iterations in all. The first 17 entrances are cast in the ancient mold: the theme, moving around in long notes among discant, bass and middle voice, is accompanied by two lines of counterpoint in canon or strict imitation. The section ends with dramatic rhetoric in four voices. Entrance 18 is in full motet style, and demands a quieter Affekt and tempo. Then Tomkins enters upon a dazzling, kaleidoscopic display of keyboard techniques learned from the old masters of the early 16th century as found in the manuscript once in his possession, British Library Add. Ms. 29996, and from later masters like Thomas Tallis, Tallis’ disciple (and Tomkins’ “most reverenced master”) William Byrd and John Bull. All is held together by the omnipresent theme. As the intensity and virtuosity increase, the overall tempo must slacken, as I think it must in the later fantasias of Sweelinck and the complex variations of a Giles Farnaby as well. One more elegiac section interrupts the final impetus, before the piece ends with a series of ever-grander settings of the theme and a florid free coda.

The end of the piece is signed no less than four times; five, if one counts an erasure where the coda begins. The signatures are variants of [finis] Mr. Tho[mas] Tomkins [:––– organist of his majestys chapell], and one of the fully written-out names looks (again: to me) like an autograph. It is as though more than one contemporary recognized the work’s significance, and wanted to pay tribute to the composer.


There is a record of John Bull playing an offertory at St. James’ Palace while Queen Elizabeth performed her devotions. Bull was in some kind of contact with Sweelinck – possibly direct, after he fled to the southern Netherlands. But the Offertory doesn’t represent an English “reception” of Sweelinck’s monothematic fantasias; rather, it is a late example of the English ground by the last of the Virginalists.

This piece is unique within Tomkins’ surviving corpus of keyboard works in the way it is divided into contrasting segments. His two other grounds, both earlier than the Offertory, can be played straight through in one tempo. Such is also the case with Byrd’s “Browning” for five-part viol consort, an ostinato work which Tomkins termed “excellent”. While there are a number of fermatas scattered through the Offertory, these likely indicate places where the composer thought he was finished, only to change his mind later, or to indicate stopping points in the copying process. There are similar examples in the Paris MS. I cannot accept an alternative explanation offered in the musicological literature – that the fermatas indicate possible halts should the piece prove too long for the collection of alms in church. Reference is made in this connection to Tomkins’ note to his long Hexachord Fantasy: “Use as many, or as few as you will of these many ways upon this plainsong.” That brilliant piece can also be classed as a ground. But the Offertory is too tightly-structured for such disassembly to be tolerated, and I don’t believe the work was ever intended for a church service, or for the organ. Moreover, the hexachord fantasy seems never to have achieved a definitive state. After an earlier fragmentary entry in the same MS as the Offertory, its chaotic further development is documented in the Paris MS. So the fermatas furnish no help in understanding why the Offertory is so sectional.


Coincidentally, a piece was published in Rome in 1637 which, while not proposing any direct connection, I think may put us on the track towards understanding the unusual character of the Offertory. As in the case of Tomkins’ Hexachord Fantasy, this other work’s composer invites the player to separatamente sonare its sections; but the player must also agiustare il tempo dell’una e altra parte – adjust the tempo from one section to another.

I am talking, of course, about Frescobaldi’s Cento Partite sopra Passacagli, variations built on a ground bass. It may seem unorthodox to attribute any degree of Italianism to Tomkins, but Italian musical dynasties like the Lupo’s and Ferrabosco’s were flourishing in England during his lifetime. Tomkins put consort fantasies of the younger Alfonso Ferrabosco into keyboard score, including one of his extremely chromatic hexachord fantasies. That composer was already composing declamatory songs, and his sons were active instrumentalists. John Cooper, the colleague of Gibbons in the private band of Charles I, changed his name to “Coperario” after visiting Italy. A Toccata di Roma by one Girolamo Ferrabosco was found among John Bull’s papers after his death in Antwerp. Before all this, John Dowland had gone to Venice and Bologna, and still earlier, Henry VIII had recruited Italian musicians. So it isn’t as if England, in splendid isolation, was cut off from continental doings. Could it be that in 1608 word had travelled from Brussels and Antwerp of the revolution being wrought by a young man in the retinue of the papal nuncio – Girolamo Frescobaldi? Taken in the broadest lines, the Offertory exhibits the five-part toccata structure which by 1637 was being codified in Italy. As previously mentioned, two quieter sections are interspersed among three of differing degrees of liveliness, with the overall tempo gradually slowing. Tomkins ends on a quarter-note beat. Note values have been in a state comparable to monetary inflation since mensuration began. Tomkins owned one of the oldest preserved manuscripts of British keyboard music, and knew notations where the beat fell on the breve or the semibreve. A beat on the minim was still being used in his day for church music; the latest thing was a beat on the semi-minim (crotchet or quarter note), which still partly holds today. The last of these transitions is found within the confines of the Offertory. The opening fantasia-like section demands what was always called a “grave” beat on the minim. As figuration becomes more complex, and note values therefore progressively smaller (the process which was the cause of note-inflation), the tempo slows by small steps.

Tomkins’ son and posthumous editor tells us that the half-notes in his father’s vocal works are to be taken at the speed of the human pulse, or of a pendulum two feet long. According to a test I carried out, this corresponds to MM 76, which is remarkably close to Quantz’ pulse-rate of 80. After opening in this tempo, by the end of the Offertory Tomkins has transitioned to the newer Italian quarter-note tactus, which by this time had also reached French* and English keyboard music. The note values of the ostinato have correspondingly been reduced by half in some places, from whole notes (semibreves) to half notes (minima).

As much as I am attached to idea of a unifying single tempo wherever possible and necessary, especially in such an archaic-seeming ostinato as this: when the content of the piece cries out for some variety, one must bend one’s principles. I am not talking about the constant false rubato now plaguing the field, which has contaminated the minds of some of the greatest interpreters of Classic and Romantic works, and which will at some point inevitably give rise to a reaction: a dry, neue neue Sachlichkeit – but rather about subtle changes as one goes along, sometimes more marked at the outset of new sections.


Christopher Simpson, referring to “Music design’d for Instruments”, by 1667 already felt compelled to write, “Of this sort you may see many Compositions made heretofore in England, by Alfonso Ferabosco, Coperario, Lupo, White, Ward, Mico, Dr. Colman, and many more deceas’d...This kind of Music (the more is the pity) is now much neglected by reason of the scarcity of Auditors that understand it; their Ears being better acquainted and more delighted with light and airy Music.” (A Compendium of Practical Musick, London, 1667) Charles II brought “light and airy Music” back with him from his French exile. Purcell and a few others tried to buck the trend for awhile. And where are now the “Auditors that understand” a work like Thomas Tomkins’ Offertory? They number a few aging curmudgeons like your humble author – he who even neglected it until recently, and who will not be around much longer to complain about the way the world goes. Such sets of ostinato variations by the great masters bear within their modest bounds as much pure musical substance (or more) than the passacaglia/ground finale of Brahms’ 4th symphony – a work for the admiration of which I yield to no wo*man. But they lack its seductive orchestral color and Romantic extremes of gesture and dynamics. The craftsmanship and self-restraint their composers imposed on themselves, combined with the severity of the harpsichord’s tonal palette, doom them for this sorry age.


The recording appended here is the best I can do at my advanced age and after having suffered a moderate stroke. I hope it will convey some idea of how I think the piece ought to go.

July 10, 2023

*The 1623 Hymnes of Titelouze are notated in quarter notes with a C time signature, which he says is to be played at half the usual tempo. The title includes the words “avec les fugues et recherches”, which indicates that the composer of the first printed French keyboard score in almost a century (since Attaingnant, 1531) was familiar with the Italian ricercar.

click to listen (mp3 file)

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