Robert Whyte


When Robert Whyte applied for the Cambridge Bachelor's degree in 1560, he had studied music for ten years; so he may well have been born between about 1530 and 1535, by which time Tallis and Tye were in their twenties or thirties. We know he was a chorister and later one of the cantores at Trinity College, Cambridge (1555-1562); thereafter he succeeded his father-in-law Christopher Tye as Master of the Choristers and Organist at Ely Cathedral (1561-1566); and probably was appointed Master of the Choristers at Chester Cathedral (c.1566-c.1569) before moving to London as Master of Choristers at Westminster Abbey from 1570, where he died of the plague in the disastrous epidemic of 1574. Although Whyte seems to have spent much of his life working to the north of the capital, his Will states that he left property of some substance in Sussex. This kind of biographical non sequitur should make us cautious of concluding that he never worked at court: it is perfectly possible that, from his Cambridge days, he regularly visited London and always kept in touch with developments there. He seems never to have been formally attached to the Chapel Royal, the obvious recipient of the potentially contentious and vocally demanding later works, though it remains highly probable that he was asked to contribute to their work, especially after 1569 or 1570 with his appointment as Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey.

Whyte's works fall into two main groups: those which could have been used in Sarum services and devotions under Mary, and those (psalm-motets and Lamentations) which one would imagine were written in Elizabeth's reign.

The Sarum works comprise antiphons, hymns and a respond, all on equal-note cantus firmi, and a large-scale six-part Magnificat which, like two of Taverner's settings, has a psalm tone as the tenor of the fullchoir sections. The Magnificat bears the date 1570 in the fragmentary source in the Bodleian Library, but the style makes it very much easier to take this as the year of copying than as the year of composition. For example at 'Sicut locutus', a four-part section with the plainsong in the mean, mostly in longs and breves, the accompanying parts have numerous crotchet runs which, although considerably more numerous and more hectic, give something of the same effect as the similarly scored 'Et incamatus' of Taverner's Gloria tibi Trinitas. But there are also traces of the repetitive techniques so characteristic of Whyte in his full-choir motets. The key point here is the exchanging of material between pairs of voices of equal range throughout a fourpart or six-part texture; Tallis and Sheppard of course had reversed a single pair of (countertenor) parts when the music for one verse of a hymn was re-used, or very occasionally when a set of entries was re-stated.

Whyte deserves to be remembered most of all for his large and important contribution to the psalm-motet. His motets fall into a group of seven with solo-full textural contrasts and five with continuous full textures and very strictly worked imitation.

A Partial Robert Whyte Discography   |   IV M: England Through 1635   |   Latin Church Music 1460-1575: The Composers