Thomas Tomkins

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Thomas Tomkins (1572 – 9 June 1656) was a Welsh-born composer of the late Tudor and early Stuart period. In addition to being one of the prominent members of the English Madrigal School, he was a skilled composer of keyboard and consort music, and the last member of the English virginalist school.

The English Madrigal School was the brief but intense flowering of the musical madrigal in England, mostly from 1588 to 1627, along with the composers who produced them. The English madrigals were a cappella, predominantly light in style, and generally began as either copies or direct translations of Italian models. Most were for three to six voices.

Consort of instruments musical ensemble

A consort of instruments was a phrase used in England during the 16th and 17th centuries to indicate an instrumental ensemble. These could be of the same or a variety of instruments. Consort music enjoyed considerable popularity at court and in households of the wealthy in the Elizabethan era and many pieces were written for consorts by the major composers of the period. In the Baroque era consort music was absorbed into chamber music.

Virginalist denotes a composer of the so-called virginalist school, and usually refers to the English keyboard composers of the late Tudor and early Jacobean periods. The term does not appear to have been applied earlier than the 19th century. Although the virginals was among the most popular keyboard instruments of this period, there is no evidence that the composers wrote exclusively for this instrument, and their music is equally suited to the harpsichord, the clavichord or the chamber organ.



Tomkins was born in St David's in Pembrokeshire in 1572. His father, also Thomas, who had moved there in 1565 from the family home of Lostwithiel in Cornwall, [1] was a vicar choral of St David's Cathedral and organist there. Three of Thomas junior's half-brothers, John, Giles and Robert, also became eminent musicians, but none quite attained the fame of Thomas. By 1594, but possibly as early as 1586, Thomas and his family had moved to Gloucester, where his father was employed as a minor canon at the cathedral. Thomas almost certainly studied under William Byrd for a time, for one of his songs [2] bears the inscription: To my ancient, and much reverenced Master, William Byrd, and it may have been at this period of his career, since Byrd leased property at Longney, near Gloucester. Although documentary proof is lacking, it is also possible that Byrd was instrumental in finding young Thomas a place as chorister in the Chapel Royal. [3] In any case, all former Chapel Royal choristers were required to be found a place at university, and in 1607 Tomkins was admitted to the degree of B.Mus. as a member of Magdalen College, Oxford.

Pembrokeshire County in Wales

Pembrokeshire is a county in the southwest of Wales. It is bordered by Carmarthenshire to the east, Ceredigion to the northeast, and the sea everywhere else.

Lostwithiel small town and civil parish in Cornwall, England

Lostwithiel is a civil parish and small town in Cornwall, England, United Kingdom at the head of the estuary of the River Fowey. According to the 2001 census it had a population of 2,739, increasing to 2,899 at the 2011 census. The Lostwithiel electoral ward had a population of 4,639 at the 2011 census. The name Lostwithiel comes from the Cornish "lostwydhyel" which means "tail of a wooded area".

A lay clerk, also known as a lay vicar, song man or a vicar choral, is a professional adult singer in an Anglican cathedral and often Roman Catholic Cathedrals in the UK, or (occasionally) collegiate choir in Britain and Ireland. The vicars choral were substitutes for the canons. They are not in holy orders; the term "vicar" is derived from the Latin adjective vicarius ("substituted") and in this context simply means a deputy. The majority of lay clerks are male; however, female altos are nowadays becoming increasingly common.

Worcester Cathedral Worcester cathedral.jpg
Worcester Cathedral

But already in 1596 he had been appointed Organist at Worcester Cathedral. The next year he married Alice Patrick, a widow nine years his senior, whose husband Nathaniel, who died in 1595, had been Tomkins' predecessor at Worcester. Thomas's only son, Nathaniel, was born in Worcester in 1599, where he was to spend the rest of his life and become a respected musician.

Worcester Cathedral Church in Worcester , United Kingdom

Worcester Cathedral, is an Anglican cathedral in Worcester, England, situated on a bank overlooking the River Severn. It is the seat of the Bishop of Worcester. Its official name is the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Mary the Virgin of Worcester. The present cathedral church was built between 1084 and 1504, and represents every style of English architecture from Norman to Perpendicular Gothic. It is famous for its Norman crypt and unique chapter house, its unusual Transitional Gothic bays, its fine woodwork and its "exquisite" central tower, which is of particularly fine proportions.

Nathaniel Tomkins was a British Member of Parliament. He represented Carlisle and Christchurch.

Tomkins was acquainted with Thomas Morley, also a pupil of Byrd's, for his signed copy of Morley's publication Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597) has been preserved, together with Thomas's many annotations; [4] and in 1601 Morley included one of Tomkins' madrigals in his important collection The Triumphs of Oriana .

Thomas Morley English composer, organist and editor

Thomas Morley was an English composer, theorist, singer and organist of the Renaissance. He was one of the foremost members of the English Madrigal School. He was also involved in music publishing, and from 1598 up to his death he held a printing patent. He used the monopoly in partnership with professional music printers such as Thomas East. According to Philip Brett and Tessa Murray, Morley was 'chiefly responsible for grafting the Italian shoot on to the native stock and initiating the curiously brief but brilliant flowering of the madrigal that constitutes one of the most colourful episodes in the history of English music'.

The Triumphs of Oriana is a book of English madrigals, compiled and published in 1601 by Thomas Morley, which first edition has 25 pieces by 23 composers. It was said to have been made in the honour of Queen Elizabeth I. Every madrigal in the collection contains the following couplet at the end: “Thus sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana: long live fair Oriana”.

In 1612 Tomkins oversaw the construction in Worcester cathedral of a magnificent new organ by Thomas Dallam, the foremost organ-builder of the day. He continued writing verse anthems, and his collection of 28 madrigals, the Songs of 3, 4, 5 and 6 parts was finally published in 1622 with a dedicatory poem by his half-brother John Tomkins (circa 1587–1638), now organist of King's College, Cambridge (later of St Paul's and of the Chapel Royal), with whom Thomas maintained an intimate and loving relationship.

Thomas Dallam English organ-builder

Thomas Dallam was an English organ-builder. Dallam served an apprenticeship and became a member of London's Blacksmiths' Company. He travelled frequently to build organs on site, going as far as Turkey.

Kings College, Cambridge college of the University of Cambridge

King's College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. Formally The King's College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas in Cambridge, the college lies beside the River Cam and faces out onto King's Parade in the centre of the city.

St Pauls Cathedral Church in London

St Paul's Cathedral, London, is an Anglican cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of London and the mother church of the Diocese of London. It sits on Ludgate Hill at the highest point of the City of London and is a Grade I listed building. Its dedication to Paul the Apostle dates back to the original church on this site, founded in AD 604. The present cathedral, dating from the late 17th century, was designed in the English Baroque style by Sir Christopher Wren. Its construction, completed in Wren's lifetime, was part of a major rebuilding programme in the City after the Great Fire of London. The cathedral building largely destroyed in the Great Fire, now often referred to as Old St Paul's Cathedral, was a central focus for medieval and early modern London, including Paul's walk and St. Paul's Churchyard being the site of St. Paul's Cross.

Probably by about 1603 Thomas was appointed a Gentleman Extraordinary of the Chapel Royal. This was an honorary post, but in 1621 he became a Gentleman Ordinary and organist under his friend and senior organist, Orlando Gibbons. The duties connected with this post included regular journeys between Worcester and London, which Tomkins performed until about 1639. [5]

On James I's death in March 1625 Tomkins, with other Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, was required to attend to both the music for James's funeral and that for the coronation of Charles I. These monumental tasks proved too much for Gibbons, who died of a stroke in Canterbury, where Charles was supposed to meet his future bride, Henrietta Maria of France, placing an even greater strain on Tomkins. Because of plague, the coronation was luckily postponed until February 1626, giving Tomkins time to compose most of the eight anthems sung at the ceremony. [6]

In 1628 Tomkins was named "Composer of [the King's] Music in ordinary" at an annual salary of £40, succeeding Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger who died in March that year. But this prestigious post, the highest honour available to an English musician, was quickly revoked on the grounds that it had been promised to Ferrabosco's son. This shabby treatment was to be only the first of a series of adversities that overtook the composer for the last fourteen years of his life. He continued, however, to perform his dual duties at Worcester and London until 1639.

Tomkins' devoted wife Alice died in 1642, the year civil war broke out. Worcester was one of the first casualties: the cathedral was desecrated, and Tomkins' organ badly damaged by the Parliamentarians. The following year Tomkins' house near the cathedral suffered a direct hit by cannon shot, making it uninhabitable for a long period, and destroying most of his household goods and probably a number of his musical manuscripts. About this time Tomkins married his second wife Martha Browne, widow of a Worcester Cathedral lay clerk.

Further conflict and a siege in 1646 caused untold damage to the city. With the choir disbanded and the cathedral closed, Tomkins turned his genius to the composition of some of his finest keyboard and consort music; in 1647, he wrote a belated tombeau or tribute to Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, and a further one to the memory of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, both of them beheaded in the 1640s, and both admired by Tomkins. Charles I was executed in 1649, and a few days later Tomkins, always a royalist, composed his superb Sad Pavan: for these distracted times. His second wife Martha died around 1653, and deprived of his living, Tomkins, now 81, was in serious financial difficulties. In 1654 his son Nathaniel married Isabella Folliott, a wealthy widow, and Thomas went to live with them in Martin Hussingtree, some four miles from Worcester. He expressed his gratitude by composing his Galliard, The Lady Folliot's in her honour. Two years later he died and was buried in the churchyard of Martin Hussingtree on 9 June 1656.


Tomkins wrote and published madrigals—amongst which The Fauns and Satyrs Tripping, included in Morley's The Triumphs of Oriana (1601); Songs of 3,4,5 and 6 parts (1622); 76 pieces of keyboard (organ, virginal, harpsichord) music, consort music, anthems, and liturgical music. Stylistically he was extremely conservative, even anachronistic: he seems to have completely ignored the rising Baroque practice around him, with its Italian-inspired idioms, and he also avoided writing in most of the popular forms of the time, such as the lute song, or ayre. His polyphonic language, even in the fourth decade of the 17th century, was frankly that of the Renaissance. Some of his madrigals are extremely expressive, with text-painting and chromaticism worthy of Italian madrigalists such as Marenzio or Luzzaschi.

He was also a prolific composer of both full and verse anthems, writing more than almost any other English composer of the 17th century—surpassed (putatively) only by William Child—and several of his works for the church were contemporaneously copied for use elsewhere. The survival of his music was ensured by the posthumous publication, overseen by his son Nathaniel, of Musica Deo Sacra et Ecclesiae Anglicanae; or Music dedicated to the Honor and Service of God, and to the Use of Cathedral and other Churches of England (William Godbid, London: 1668); Musica Deo Sacra contains five services, five psalm tunes, the Preces and two proper psalms, and ninety-four anthems, and was published as a five-volume set—one volume each for Medius; Contratenor; Tenor; Bassus, and the Pars Organica.

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  1. Boden 2005, p. 7
  2. Too much I once lamented (1622)
  3. Boden 2005, p. 42
  4. Magdalen College Library, Oxford
  5. Boden 2005 p. 165
  6. Boden 2005, p. 127