John Taverner: His Life and Music. By Hugh Benham. Burlington, VT: Ashgate , 2003. [xvii, 332 p. ISBN 0-7546-0142-0. $94.95.] Music examples, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index.
John Taverner (ca. 1490-1545) gained a degree of unexpected notoriety in the twentieth century when Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote his opera Taverner based on the Tudor composer's life. While biographical clarification was not the result of that work, the long-term interest in Taverner's music was affirmed.
Hugh Benham, arguably one of the most notable Taverner scholars, has provided an intensely detailed study of Taverner's music in the publication under review. While this monograph can stand alone, its strength is increased when used in conjunction with volumes 20, 25, 30, 35, and 36 of Early English Church Music (London: Stainer & Bell, 1962- ) in which the full musical scores edited by Benham can be found.
Directed at the informed amateur, student, and scholar, this publication will also find a welcome place in the hands of choral directors who seek to present informed and accurate performances of Taverner's music. In this publication, Benham places emphasis on the music with only one chapter devoted to biographical material. While this may seem a shortcoming, detailed information regarding Taverner's life is simply not available. For example, an exact birth date cannot be established. Nonetheless, it is known that he was born in Lincolnshire where he received a good musical education and established his reputation. This, ultimately, led him to a musical position in the highly regarded Cardinal's (now known as Christ Church) College, Oxford that was under the direct patronage of Cardinal Wolsey, who was, until his demise, arguably the most influential and powerful figure in England aside from the king. While there, he became indirectly involved in a Lutheran controversy connected with singers he had recruited from Lincolnshire. Subsequently, after Wolsey's fall from favor, and as a result of the lack of financial support given to Cardinal's College, Taverner returned to Lincolnshire. There he became successfully involved in music and also became a civic leader.
Under Henry VIII, life in England was uncertain due to the political climate, itself inseparable from the religious pluralism that was evolving as a result of the religious reformation taking place in Europe. In the present publication, Benham does not deal with this at any length. While this exclusion does not diminish the value of the book in any way, it would have been helpful to have a summary of the social, political, and religious uncertainty of the time in order to better contextualize Taverner's life and music. As it is, this information will have to be found elsewhere in a work such as G. R. Elton's book on the Tudors (G. R. Elton, England Under The Tudors, 2d. ed. [London: Methuen, 1974]). Conversely, the author may assume that the reader already has this knowledge.
Organizationally, the book is divided into two large sections. Chapters 1 through 5 provide a background against which details of style and technique are discussed in chapters 6 through 12. The introduction gives a concise synopsis of each of the chapters and Benham's editorial policy regarding music examples, Latin translations, spelling, manuscript references, and collected editions. Preceding the introduction are complete lists of plates, tables, music examples with measure numbers from the relevant score editions, and abbreviations including library sigla.
Performance issues are clearly addressed by dealing with such questions as modern editions, pitch, "reduced passages" for semi-chorus and chorus, as well as the lack of evidence about sixteenth-century rehearsal techniques, tempi, time signatures, text underlay, and Latin pronunciation. …