Thomas Morley

(c. 1557 -- 1602)

Thomas Morley was as skilled an entrepreneur and businessman as he was a composer. He was born in Norwich in 1557 or 1558, the son of a brewer, and probably received his earliest musical education as a chorister at Norwich Cathedral. He became organist of the cathedral in 1583, and, with Inglott, Master of the Choristers. He graduated BMus at Oxford in 1588, became organist of St Giles, Cripplegate (London), by 1589 was organist of St Paul's Cathedral in London, and from 1592 was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He was also organist of Little St Helen's, Bishopsgate (London) 1596-1601.

We have elsewhere described how in 1590 Thomas East1 published Thomas Watson's First Set of Italian Madrigals Englished, which was devoted almost entirely to the works of Luca Marenzio, whose lighter madrigals were particularly popular and influential in England. East or Watson, however, prevailed on William Byrd to contribute two settings of 'This sweet and merry month of May''after the Italian vein,' though since he wrote no more in it we can assume the style did not interest him particularly.

Not so Morley, who early took over the leadership of the campaign for the Italian madrigal; himself a gifted composer, he carried it forward by example as well as precept. His first Canzonets for three voices of 1593, dedicated to the Countess of Pembroke, were direct imitations of the light-hearted type of brief Italian madrigal. Its fresh, bright, somewhat brittle, style took on at once, and the book went into several editions. He was extraordinarily energetic and prolific; volume after volume followed in quick succession: a First Book of Madrigals for four voices, the first in which the Italian name was used, next year.

In 1595 Morley produced two volumes. TheFirst Book of Ballets introduced a gay new type of composition straight from Italy, modelled mainly on Gastoldi, with both English and Italian words. It was dedicated to Sir Robert Cecil, himself a connoisseur of music. A German edition of this was published at Nuremberg in 1608. TheFirst Book of Canzonets for two voices also contained a number of instrumental fantasies. His expressive gifts and effective variations of rhythm endeared him to a wide public, and that he was an original creator is witnessed by the fact that such pieces from these books as 'Now is the month of maying' and 'Sweet nymph, come to thy lover' are still favourites.

In 1596, Morley was granted by Queen Elizabeth the monopoly of music printing, upon the expiration of William Byrd's patent,2 and promptly assiged it in his turn to its current holder Thomas East, but clearly employed it to help him promote not only his own work, but also the Italianate madrigal in general.

The Canzonets for five and six voices (1597) contain Morley's maturest work and reveal him well in sad and affecting moods as well as cheerful: he was clearly of a mercurial temperament. Among the works is a noble elegiac madrigal in memory of Henry Noel, a gentleman pensioner of the Queen, skilled in music and beloved of the musicians.3

Not content with this, in these years Morley made two collections of Italian madrigals, adapting the words to English. The second of these is dedicated to Sir Gervase Clifton: 'Good sir, I ever held this sentence of the poet as a canon of my creed: that whom God loveth not, they love not music ... For your part, I cannot easily tell whether I may more commend in you Art itself or the love of art ... It is not with you as with many others which for form affect it much.' In addition to the Italians Morley included two Italianate madrigals by the gifted Catholic exile, Peter Phillips, who became organist to Philip II's daughter and son-in-law at their Court in Brussels. Nine volumes in seven years!--with his important manual on music, and a volume of consort lessons for instrumental ensemble.

He wrote the classic Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music(1597), the best manual of instruction for singing, vocal music and composition, of the time; and from it we learn much about the condition of contemporary music. The book was dedicated to Byrd,'in all love and affection to you, your most addicted Thomas Morley.' Behind it was Morley's long experience with cathedral choirs, now infused with his addiction to everything Italian.4

Morley crowned his career by editing the famous Triumphs of Oriana in 1601. This was the culmination of the cult of the Queen in music, celebrating her victories over all her enemies (the last of them being Essex). The idea was derived from the Venetian Il Trionfo di Dori of some years before. Twenty leading composers and amateurs joined together to do honor to the famous old lady (who had been such a good friend to music). Verses were set, each ending with the refrain:

Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana: 'Long live fair Oriana.'

Some composers were late with their contributions, which appear elsewhere; Morley and Ellis Gibbons filled in with two each. Among those who appear are Weelkes, Wilbye, Tomkins,John Mundy, Robert Jones; among cultivated amateurs, Michael Cavendish, William Cobbold and Milton's father. The book was dedicated to Lord Admiral Howard, who had triumphed over the Armada. Two of the most eminent composers were missing: Byrd, in spite of all that he owed to the Queen, and John Dowland, already at Elsinore in the service of the King of Denmark. (This was also the year of Hamlet.)

During these years Morley lived in the parish of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, where Shakespeare also was living in 1598. They were rated at the same assessment for the subsidy, and apparently both appealed. It seems quite probable that they knew each other, since Morley composed the music for 'It was a lover and his lass' and may have done also for 'O mistress mine.' Morley's health, however, was reducing him to 'a solitary life ... being compelled to keep at home', and in 1602 he resigned from the Chapel Royal. Next year he was dead, only forty-six. His feverish energy may indicate that he was a consumptive; apparently everybody fell for his charm, and he certainly was the most popular composer of madrigals, with a catchiness in his melodies that made them easy to remember. Though an aficionado of the Italian school, he had played a significant part in the formation of the English. Weelkes paid tribute to him in a noble madrigal, to the words of John Davies of Hereford, with plangent grieving cadences on the word 'dearest':

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend:
My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave ...


Canzonets, or Little Songs of Three Voyces (1593); Madrigals to Foure Voyces: the first Booke (1594); Balletts to 5 voices (1595); The First Books of Canzonetts to two voyces (1595); A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Parcticall Musicke (1597); Canzonets or Little short Airs to Five and Sixe Voices (1597); The First Booke of Consert Lessons, ... (1599); As You Like It (1599); The First Boke of Consert Lessons, ... (2nd edition) (1600); Triumphs of Oriana (Masque) (1601).

Further reading:

Tudor Settings of the Lord's Prayer: A short essay by Ben Byram-Wigfield

Links on this site:

A Partial Thomas Morley Discography | IV M: England Through 1635 | English Lute Composers through 1635 | | Guide to English Song in the Elizabethan and Stuart Ages | The English Lutenists


1.Thomas East, Easte, Este, or Est.
   Printer, bookseller, music printer and publisher, London c. 1566-1609. Issued some musical works from c.1587 as the assigne of William Byrd, from 1600 as the assigne of Thomas Morley, and from 1606 as the assigne of William Barley. 'Lucretia East the assignee of William Barley' issued in 1610 an edition of Byrd's Songs of Sundrie Natures, a work that had been previously issued by her husband in 1589.   
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2. William Byrd obtained with Thomas Tallis, January 1575, a patent from Queen Elizabeth for "importation of music from foreign sources," and printing and selling music and music paper for twenty-one years. They imported a fount of type from Johann Petreius of nuemberg and employed Thomas Vautrollier, Blackfriars, London, to print for them Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur.....1575. The type then remained unused until after the death of Vautrollier in 1587, when it passed into the possession of Thomas East (Este), some of whose imprints describe him as the assigne of William Byrd. Tallis died in November 1585, after which Byrd held the patent alone until its expiration.  Return to Text

3. Dowland composed seven hymns for his funeral and later published a galliard after his name. Weelkes wrote an elegy:

Noel, adieu, adieu, thou Court's delight,
Upon whose locks the graces sweetly played ...

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4. The flood of musical publications made 1597 an annus mirabilis; it was the first year after the expiry of the Byrd-East printing monopoly. Tallis and Byrd had not made their monopoly very profitable, probably because they were not business men--their minds were elsewhere. Thomas East, first as assigne of Byrd, then of Morley, was the man who changed the face of music-printing, partly by his adoption of Italian standards, his introduction of Italian compositions, and by more prolific publishing. However, the vastly increased output of works after 1596 makes clear that it was the patent-holder that initiated and directed the choice of works and their publication.   Return to Text