Music and memory after the Reformation

Music in ritual is one of the prime carriers of bodily memory. The Reformed Book of Common Prayer, unlike medieval liturgical books, contained not one musical note. However, its rubrics indicated singing by a choir, and music was permitted at Matins and Evensong. This book was produced by John Marbeck (or Merbecke), former chorister of St George’s Windsor, who was listed among King Edward VI’s musicians in December 1547. The book is caught between worlds. Parishioners would readily have remembered music as essential to the pre-Reformation mass and divine office, especially in an opening such as here at the Magnificat. Although Luther and Calvin both encouraged devotional singing, some Protestants regarded music as distracting or even idolatrous, and the music here is deliberately simple, with an emphasis on the audibility of the words. The soundscape of the Reformed liturgy thus attested to a divided experience, in which mind and body were at odds. Marbeck’s book was issued in only one edition, but his settings were revived in the nineteenth century and are still in use. His music is now synonymous with old-style Anglicanism, and yet was probably barely known in his own time. BC

John Marbeck [Merbecke], The booke of common praier noted (London: Richard Grafton, 1550).

CUL: Syn.7.55.55, sig. E3v-E4r

Further Reading

Kim, Hyun-Ah, Humanism and the Reform of Sacred Music in Early Modern England: John Merbecke the Orator and The Booke of Common Praier Noted (1550) (Farnham, 2008).

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