The Great Anonymous

MozartAnonymousThe composer Anonymous. Ah, yes, that great composer Anonymous. He or she left the world so many significant musical compositions, not to mention great poetry and great works of art.

The anthem for this Sunday morning (December 13) is a favorite, beloved setting of the Philippians lectionary reading, “Rejoice in the Lord alway.” For centuries it was published under the name of Tudor composer John Redford (c. 1500–1547), but modern scholarship has established that he did not compose this widely-used anthem.

From the inflections of the words and the rhythms of the music, we do know that this text was taken from the 1594 revision of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. However, the only source for the music is from The Mulliner Book (ca. 1545/1570) now held in the British Library.

The Mulliner Book is a commonplace book of significant, historical musical worth. Commonplace books (from the Latin locus communis, “a theme of general application”) were the scrapbooks of their day – records of medical procedures, weights and measures, letters, quotes, poems – and were used by readers, writers, students and scholars to remember things that they had learned. Because they were used primarily by one owner, these books tend to contain things along one given theme.

The Mulliner Book contains 121 keyboard pieces based upon plainsong chants, and the remainder of compositions in the book are sacred and secular part songs and anthems. Works of noted composers Tallis, Redford, Taverner and Tye are included, and 19 pieces are unattributed.

So, who might Anonymous, the owner of The Mulliner Book, have been? A budding music student who wanted to remember some of the best compositions of his or her time? A professor and scholar who taught these anthems and songs to his or her 16th-century students? A scholar of another discipline who loved music and wanted to remember his or her favorites?

We are grateful to Anonymous for this setting of this beloved Philippians text, and we will enjoy his or her delightful anthem in our liturgy this Sunday morning.

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