Fretwork: "In Nomine" - Complete Program Notes

What’s in a name? Well, in the case of “In Nomine” (in the name of…), just about everything, at least in terms of the origin of this genre of very English 16th- and 17th-century consort music.

In 1526 John Taverner (c. 1490-1545) became the first leader of the very large choir at Cardinal Wolsey’s new Oxford college (now Christ Church), where he remained until 1530, following Wolsey’s fall from power and the subsequent impoverishment of the college. It was probably during this time that Taverner composed a magnificent festal mass based on the Sarum chant “Gloria tibi Trinitas.” The bulk of the work is for six parts, but a section of the Benedictus, setting the words “In nomine Domini” (In the name of the Lord), was in only four parts. Graceful music in a simpler style than most Tudor church music of the time, it was much imitated, becoming very popular as the model for a separate instrumental piece, without text.

Taverner’s original setting is the music that opens this program. Over 150 In Nomines from over 50 composers in the next century and a half survive, indicating the durable hold it had on the creative imagination of English musicians. There are loosely related examples for keyboard and lute, and some songs based on the model, but most are for viols, the predecessors of the violin family.

The texture ranged from three parts to seven or more, but five parts became a standard, thanks largely to Christopher Tye (c. 1505-1573), who wrote over 20 In Nomines for viol consorts. Like Taverner, Tye was a church musician, but with greater connection to the royal courts, where consort playing was popular. Many of Tye’s In Nomines have contemporary nicknames, such as “Crye,” where rapidly repeated notes imitate the cries of street vendors. “Trust” is unusual for its experimentation with a quintuple meter.

Robert Parsons (c. 1535-1572) wrote a handful of In Nomines in four to seven parts, as well as a few other instrumental pieces. William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) was the great master of Elizabethan music, writing in all available genres and styles, including seven In Nomines and a number of fantasias such as “Browning” among his body of concert music. Little is known about the composer Picforth – even his first name – but he seems to have flourished during the same period as Byrd, leaving as almost his only remembrance an ingenious In Nomine in which each of the five parts is written throughout in a single time value.  

Best known as a keyboard virtuoso, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) represents a younger generation, but his four In Nomines stand clearly in the established viol consort tradition. William Lawes (1602-1645) was an early Baroque composer, writing for violins as idiomatically as for viols – he did compose two six-part In Nomines –  and grouping his instrumental music into small suites or “setts.” By the time of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), full viol consorts were becoming archaic, but Purcell was quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic about earlier traditions, and his ensemble music includes highly contrapuntal consort fantasias (as well as two imposing In Nomines) for viols alongside more up-to-date sonatas for violins. (The five-part Fantasia “on one note” does indeed have a part that consists of single pitch, middle C.)

The In Nomine tradition was revived by some 20th-century English composers, particularly the late Peter Maxwell Davies, and in the 21st century the German contemporary music group ensemble recherché has taken the genre international, commissioning a series of In Nomines by composers such as Brian Ferneyhough, Georg Friedrich Haas, Toshio Hosokawa, György Kurtág, Wolfgang Rihm, and Salvatorre  Sciarrino.  

Fretwork has also contributed contemporary In Nomines to the repertory. Nico Muhly (b. 1981) may be an American composer, but he is much inspired by English traditions, revealed in many works besides his 2015 In Nomine Slow. A bass player himself, Gavin Bryars (b. 1943) has an avowed interest in string music and the techniques and esthetics of early music. His In Nomine (After Purcell), composed for Fretwork, refers not just to a six-part Purcell piece, but follows the tradition back to its roots in Taverner’s “Gloria tibi Trinitas” mass.

– John Henken