Thomas Tomkins, the last Elizabethan

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[December 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:5.]

By the time Thomas Tomkins died in 1656, he had outlived his contemporaries: Byrd, Bull, Gibbons and Sweelinck, all of whom died in the 1620s. He was by no means an also-ran, however. Tomkins was selected to fill Gibbons’ post as organist of The Chapell Royal in 1625. The last surviving pupil of William Byrd, he was also organist and choirmaster of Worcester Cathedral from 1596 until the Puritans shut down all musical religious establishments in 1646. He also had to witness the destruction of the precious Thomas Dallam organ he had personally commissioned in 1614.

Besides keyboard music for harpsichord, virginal and organ Tomkins was one of the foremost composers of Anglican choral music, which he collected in Musica Deo Sacra published by his son Nathaniel in 1668.

Thomas Tomkins: Barafostus Dreame. Carôle Cerasi, harpsichord and virginals.

METRONOME MET CD 1049 (2000)

Here we have ‘Barafostus’ dreame,’ ‘A sad pavan for these distracted times,’ ‘Worcester brawls,’ and a ‘Fancy for two to play’ among other Tomkins keyboard favorites, exquisitely recorded on a Willem Kroesbergen copy of a Bartolomeo Sephanini (one-manual) harpsichord and a Musealer virginal by Derek Adlam and Richard Burnett (1973) after a 1611 Ruckers in the Vleeshuis Museum in Antwerp. [Musealer Klangmaterialismus refers to an effort on the part of “instrument makers, performers and arrangers to replicate the precise sound of an obsolete instrument.” Baker’s Dictionary of Music, Schirmer Books, 1997. Ed.] This is apparently the same virginal used by Christopher Hogwood in his 1974/75 traversal of Byrd’s My Lady Nevells Booke (L’Oiseau-Lyre 430-484-2, 3 CDS) (Vleeshuis is the Flemish ‘fleece house,’ a wooly museum indeed.)

First, a few nits: the virginal is listed as by “Adlam Burnett,” somehow conflating the two gentlemen into one. And “Barafostus’ dreame” is spelled “dream” in both the contents and on the back cover. Don’t nobody proofread no more? And nowhere is to be found in the booklet any explanation of who Barafostus was or what kind of ‘dreame’ he had. I did learn from a competing recording, from Deutschland at that, that it’s the title of a popular song, presumably not lascivious.

Nits aside, this is one exquisite recording with nary a jangle and plenty of resonance with minimum keyboard and action noises. I’m partial to the mean-tone fullness of the virginal, but the harpsichord holds its own very well, too. A pupil of Kenneth Gilbert, Jill Severs and Gustav Leonhardt, Ms Cerasi has mastered just the right way to stroke the keys without making clanks and clunks, a specialty of Prof. Dr. Leonhardt.

Ever the melodist, Cerasi is never far from a flowing, vocal interpretation, not only in the song variations but in longer and slower In Nomine and Fancy (fantasia) settings which cry more for the organ loft. At this time there was still no distinction between stringed keyboards and the organ – any handy keyboard would do, thank you. Same went for our modern distinction between liturgical and secular styles; that had not yet reared its ugly head.

If you’re looking for a single CD to introduce you to the poignant world of Tomkins, you’ll have to look long and hard to find its equal. Let’s hope we can persuade the folks at MetroGnome to issue the complete Tomkins keyboard oeuvre.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF ENGLISH ORGAN MUSIC. Kenneth Gilbert. ADDA 581178 (1989)

Here Kenneth Gilbert plays three Tomkins pieces on a 1653 Robert Dallam organ in Lanvellec, France, built when the Dallams fled Britain and the Puritan vandalism of organs. The ‘Sad pavan,’ a ‘Voluntary’ and a ‘Ground’ can be heard in their organ versions. This is about as authentick as we can get to the organ sound of Tomkins’ time.

Gilbert puts Tomkins in the context of his contemporaries Byrd, Bull, Gibbons and Matthew Locke. And Gilbert is just as melodious in his interpretations as Cerasi.

THOMAS TOMKINS: Keyboard Music, Vol. 1. Bernhard Klapprott.


TOMKINS: Keyboard Music, Vol. 2. Bernard Klapprott.


TOMKINS: Keyboard Music, Vol. 3. Bernard Klapprott.


TOMKINS: Keyboard Music, Vol. 4 Bernhard Klapprott.


Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund Grimm, of Detmold, offer us three volumes of virginal and harpsichord music, all played on a repro Italian harpsichord by Cornelis A. Bom after a 17th Century instrument by Giovanni Battista Giusti and a virginal after Marten van der Biest (Flanders, 1580) by Klaus Ahrend (possibly the son of Jürgen Ahrend, the organ restorer?). These are quite similar to the instruments used by Cerasi.

The 4th volume is recorded on the 1549 (?) organ in the Reformed Church in Uttum, between Emden and Norden, restored by Ahrend and Brunzema in 1957. As I shall detail later on this Dutch sound differs considerably from the English voicing of the Dallam’s organ mentioned previously.

Prof. Klapprott has done yeoman service bringing us the ganze mischpoche of Tomkins keyboard output. I have enjoyed his readings for the past several years but always with the nagging feeling that something is being held back, an academic caution that “smells of the lamp.” Perhaps a Germanic academic lamp at that. There’s nothing brutal or heavy-handed here, more an inability to cut loose and swing with some flashy flourishes and melodies. Some of Tomkins’ keyboard fantasias are every bit as flamboyant as those of Dr John Bull. However they don’t come across in that league from Prof. Klapprott.

Vol. 4, the organ volume, has a judicious choice of pieces most appropriate to the organ: Misereres, In nomines, fancies (fantasias), verses and voluntaries. The Uttum organ has none of the light, breathy quality or the bass gravitas of contemporary English organs. Certainly this nice try is better than nothing. Perhaps when Noel Mander decides to build a large replica organ of the English Renaissance we’ll be able to hear Tomkins’ organ music ring out in full cry. To quote John Milton:

“Let the pealing organ blow …”

THOMAS TOMKINS: The Third Service (complete). The Choir of New College, Oxford (Edward Higginbottom). crd 3467 (1990)

Higginbottom delivers the Te Deum, Jubilate, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis of the Anglican service plus an In nomine and 3 organ Voluntaries all recorded by men and boys in New College’s 1379 chapel, a gift of William of Wyckham, Lord Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England. Interestingly, the reredos behind the altar still boasts its array of images of saints and worthies miraculously undefiled by Puritan vandals.

There is just enough reverberation to set off Tomkins’ harmonies and contrasts between soloists and full choir. And the choir really cuts loose with vigor in this heartiest of English choral song. There’s nothing wimpy about this music or its performance. This recording shows off Tomkins’ church music at its best.

CATHEDRAL MUSIC BY THOMAS TOMKINS. Choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle (Christopher Robinson). HYPERION CDA 66345 (1989)

The men and boys of Windsor tackle some of the more demanding verse anthems, where a soloist or two alternates with the full choir, sometimes to the disadvantage of the wispier boy trebles. Here are famous favorites like “Above the stars my saviour dwells” and “When David heard.” Lamentably, everything gets rounded off in a blur of reverb and tentative intonation.

TOMKINS: Anthems, Canticles and Keyboard Works. Oxford Camerata (Jeremy Summerly); Laurence Cummings, organ. NAXOS 8.553794 (1996)

Aside from using women instead of boys, this is one of the most echt-Anglican recordings, complete with ‘modren Oxbridge’ pronunciation. And the women have been trained to sound very much like boys. ‘Above the stars,’ ‘When David heard,’ and ‘A sad pavan’ (on the organ) are among the essential Tomkins favorites. If you want a bargain introduction to Tomkins that’s pretty historically correct and veddy, veddy professionally performed, this is the CD to seek out.

Thomas TOMKINS: Consort Music for Viols and Voices, Keyboard Music.

Rose Consort of Viols, Red Byrd, Timothy Roberts, harpsichord and organ; John Bryan, harpsichord duettist. NAXOS 8.550602 (1992)

Here’s a refreshing romp into Tomkins’ territory. For starters, Red Byrd is a small vocal group that uses period pronunciation, sounding much like contemporary Irish. And some of the Rose Consort of Viols also play in groups like Fretwork, so the viol intonation is impeccable. Timothy Roberts is one of the livelier young keyboard players in the Early Musicke field.

The three verse anthems are given a consort, chamber interpretation as they might have been heard in royal private devotions. We also get an ample sampling of Tomkins’ organ and harpsichord compositions in a domestic setting.

For a balanced selection I recommend this CD, plus the New College choral CD and the Cerasi keyboard recording. If you have a fondness for works by Orlando Gibbons, Dr. John Bull and William Byrd, you’ll find Tomkins a welcome addition to your shelves.

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