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Parsons: Burial service

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Parsons: Burial service

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Parsons: Burial Service


Duration: 8 minutes

Text: Book of Common Prayer (1552)



Very considerable uncertainty exists regarding the identity of the composer who wrote this fine setting of the burial sentences, with at least five possible candidates available. In the Chirk Castle manuscripts, it is attributed to a John Alcock – about whom nothing whatsoever is known beyond the faint possibility that it could be the same John Alcock recorded as being a choirister at St Paul's Cathedral in c1555. A family of musicians of that name, however, seem to have been closely connected to Lichfield Cathedral from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Philip Alcock, the composer of a Salve Regina which survives in the 'Gyffard' part-books (British Library Add. MS 17802-5), served at Lichfield c1524-27 but later moved to Crediton in Devon, where he was recorded as having received a pension in 1545 following the enforced closure of the collegiate church there by agents of Henry VIII. Given that the musical style of the present Burial Service, with its syllabic approach to word-setting, suggests that it may well date from the reign of Edward VI, it is not inconceivable that Philip Alcock might be the composer. The Chirk manuscripts are riddled with incorrect attributions, and it is possible that the ascription of this work to a John rather than Philip is no more than another such error. (As a minor aside: the maiden name of William Mundy's wife was also Alcock and she may also have been connected to the family of Philip.)

This Burial Service also survives in a number of later sources dating from the post-Restoration period, in which it is assigned to John Parsons (1575-1623). All include modifications to the music to match the wording found in the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer – indeed, it was sung in this form at the funeral of Charles II in 1685. In addition to the Chirk part-books, however, one early source has survived: a single unattributed bass part of c1625 found in a part-book oringinally from St Lawrence's Church, Ludlow, and now housed in the Shropshire Archives, Shrewsbury (MS 15/1/229). Although copied in the seventeenth century, this Ludlow bass part is written in a notational style current during the reign of Edward VI and, in common with the Chirk sources, it uses a form of the text found only in the 1552 version of the Book of Common Prayer. In view of the evidence presented regarding an early date for this work, therefore, its attribution to John Parsons in later sources is surprising. If correct, it would represent the production of a piece of pure pastiche, perhaps emulating to some extent the rather severe, almost retrospective style of Thomas Morley's Burial Service.

To further complicate the picture, it is possible that later copyists simply mistook a work by Robert (d.1570) or William Parsons (fl.1545-63 and active at Wells cathedral) for one by John, in much the same way as church music by William and John Mundy and Robert, William and Matthew White is frequently incorrectly assigned in seventeenth century sources. The speculative attribution of this edition to Robert Parsons, however, is founded in the sheer quality of the music within, where its simple yet expressive harmony and strong sense of musical architecture are each indicative of a composer of some stature. (Although the claim of William Parsons has to be seriously considered, his surviving music generally falls well below this high level of inspiration.) Its limpid beauty was evident to many eighteenth and nineteenth-century English musicians of quality: a statement supported by the number of surviving copies. The homophonic texture employed throughout may well indicate that these burial sentences were designed to be sung in procession (rather in the manner of Croft's well known eighteenth-century setting, so familiar from royal funerals): a suggestion clearly not lost on the Chirk scribe, who provided the inscrip

Additional Information

Additional Information

Catalogue No. CP109
Publisher Cathedral Press
Contents No