The First Service (Robert Parsons)

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The First Service

When in 1547, Edward VI ascended to the throne (on the death of his father Henry VIII), the forces of reformation began to work cataclysmic changes on the liturgy of the English church. In 1549, Thomas Cranmer’s new Book of Common Prayer swept away the old Sarum Rite and all of its Latin-texted music. Almost overnight, a brand new liturgy —suddenly in English— demanded brand new music. The skills of England’s composers were put to a severe test.

The Chapel Royal, at the epicenter of the reforming movements, was called upon to show all of England the way and, at the same time, show the international community that the new Protestantism was no less splendid that the old Catholic religion. At the center of the effort to create an entire new repertoire were composers like Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard, and Robert Parsons.

Parsons’s First Service is his largest surviving work. This multi-movement piece contains the canticles for the new services of Morning Prayer (Venite, Te Deum, Benedictus) and Evensong (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis), as well as a setting of the Credo for Mass following Morning Prayer. The Responses to the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) are often misleadingly referred to as the “Kyrie”. These comprise two tiny responses, seven and nine bars long.

Parsons’s setting of the Service for the Book of Common Prayer 1549 was among the first ever, along with settings by Sheppard, Tallis, and some less successful parochial efforts by lesser composers. While the text shows some signs of having been modernized to accommodate the newer text of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, there is sufficient textual evidence to conclude that the service was originally composed for the 1549 BCP.

At the time Parsons wrote this glorious music, composers were just developing the idea of a musically unified “Service,” modeled after the old multi-movement mass. Sheppard’s Second Service, which shares many features with Parsons’s First, is the only other complete grandly scaled example before it and served as Parsons’s model.

Parsons’s First Service is scored identically to Sheppard’s Second for antiphonal pair of choirs, Decani and Cantoris, and moves flexibly from a five-part basic texture (with two countertenor parts, one on each side of the choir) up to eight-parts, including many antiphonal effects.

(Notes by George Steel)

General Information

Title: The First Service
Composer: Robert Parsons
Genre: SacredAnthem

Language: English
Instruments: A cappella

    Manuscript ca.1640 in Durham Cathedral MSS E4-E11
First published: 1641 in John Barnard, The First Book of Selected Church Musick

Parts in this work

Morning Prayer
1Venite, exultemus
2Te Deum laudamus
3Benedictus es, Dominus
5Nunc dimittis
7Decalogue Responses ("Kyrie")

External links

Original text and translations

See individual movements for texts and translations.