Who botched "Laudate"?

Philip Legge


The musical composition Laudate nomen Domini, usually ascribed solely to the 16th Century English composer Christopher Tye, is a well-known choral motet, and is often performed around the world, as choir concert programmes prove[1]. In Australia it has been adopted as the rallying anthem of the many university choral societies[2], slightly displacing the international student song Gaudeamus igitur as a most-loved chorus. The version in common circulation in Australia[3] has a tortuous history, and if not exactly "botched" as the title of this essay might suggest, is nonetheless quite distant from the original words and notes written by Doctor Tye.

16th Century – the original publication

In London in 1553 Dr Christopher Tye published a curious work of his own lyric poetry and music, which he quaintly described thus:

The Actes of / the Apostles, translated in/to Englyshe Metre, and de/dicated to the Kynges moste excel/lent Maiestye, by Cristofer Tye, / Doctor in Musyke, and one of the / Gentylmen of hys graces most ho/nourable Chappell, wyth notes to / eche Chapter, to synge and also to / play upon the Lute, very necessarye / for studentes after theyr studye, / to fyle theyr wyttes, and also / for all Christians that / cannot synge, to / read / the good and Godlye sto/ryes of the lyues of / Christ hys Ap/postles./1553

Tye had translated the first half of the biblical book of Acts into English, and written it in common metre – a verse form with rhymes in alternating lines, and where the first and third lines contain eight syllables, while the second and fourth lines have six. In each of the fourteen chapters he translated, a double verse comprising the first two stanzas of poetry (eight lines) was set to four-part music, and the remaining stanzas in each chapter were written out at the end, necessitating a large number of repetitions of the music of the double verse.

The Actes was probably written in response to the ongoing surge of Protestantism in England, which fostered the composition of numerous congregational settings of the psalms, biblical verses, and hymns written in the vernacular – though the poetry was often of a bathetic quality. The first eight lines of Chapter IV from the Actes (which paraphrase two verses of the Bible, Acts 4:1–2) are provided as an example of Tye's poetry, which he himself (and others) acknowledged as being rather grotesque[4].

When that the people taught they had
There came to them doutles
Priests and rulers as men nye mad
And eke the Saduces
Whome it greved that they should move
The people and them leade
That Jesus Christ by powre above
Should ryse up from the deade.

Although Tye mentions the music is to be sung and played on the lute, there is no lute tablature provided as an accompaniment. The four parts in each chapter are usually notated as mean, countertenor, tenor, and bass, however several of the chapters are notated in high clefs, a convention also known as "chiavette" which implies a downward transposition[5].

For a transcription[6] of Chapter IV, see page 1 of the accompanying Acrobat PDF file; although the piece is given in the original high clefs without barring, the reader should remember the parts were each written out separately, rather than aligned to one another in score format. Astute readers will notice the second highest part is the "Tenor" and the third highest part is the "Meane" (or Alto), which was a substitution error committed by Tye's publishers in 1553. Another error is found in the phrase ending the fourth system, which is not accurately imitated in the Soprano part; the last note of the system should be f", not e".

Borrowings and new words

Tye's need to write the music to fit different texts in every subsequent double verse meant that his music would be easy to adapt to any other poems written in double common metre. This borrowing began to happen before the century was out; in 1591 one of the tunes (the treble part, to be more exact) appeared in simplified rhythms, with a new harmonisation and set to new words, in Damon's psalter; another was used by Thomas Ravenscroft, with similar alterations in rhythm, harmony, and text, when he published his psalter in 1621. These arrangements tended to remove most of what little complexity is to be found in Tye's admittedly simple music, boiling them down into routine hymn settings.

An alternative technique was to retain Tye's music wholesale, but set to a new text without too much boring repetition as in the manner of a hymn. These adaptations probably date from the 19th Century and the gradual rediscovery of Tudor music, but it is hard to be certain. Chapter I thus became the anthem "O God of Bethel" [7], Chapter IV became "O come, ye servants of the Lord" [8], and Chapter VI became "O Holy Spirit, Lord of Grace" [9]. These versions of the Actes are often sung by church choirs, probably blissfully unaware that Tye set completely different words to the music.

19th Century – publication of Tye's "O come, ye servants"

The name which has become associated with the most common arrangement of Chapter IV of the Actes is E. Stanley Roper, whose version was published in the 19th Century by Novello. Unfortunately the editor hasn't yet discovered an original copy, and so some of the following is pure speculation. The author expects to advance his arguments on a better basis of fact when a copy is obtained!

The text which became associated with the music in the 19th Century is actually a somewhat vague one. The first four lines are a rhyming paraphrase of Psalm 113, verses 1 to 3. The remaining four lines appear to be a generic set of praises which do not match a particular psalm text:

O come, ye servants of the Lord,
and praise his holy name;
From early morn to setting sun
his might on earth proclaim.
His laws are just, and glad the heart;
He makes his mercies known;
Ye princes come, ye people too,
and bow before his throne.

A typical choral edition of the period would have added dynamics, bar lines and transposed the music downwards on account of the high pitch – which reaches a" above the treble clef. A conjectural transcription appears on page 2 of the associated Acrobat PDF file; without presuming to add dynamic markings or the time signature, I also have not bothered (yet) to include tonic sol-fa notation, which was often employed in 19th Century vocal parts.

Being a mere 19 bars long, it was soon realised that the work was far too short to have any great musical effect, so modern editions quickly added repeat marks to lengthen its duration. This effected another departure from Tye's intentions by repeating each stanza of the double verse separately, in the form AABB.

The most curious feature to have been added at around this time seems to be the alternate Latin text, which is a partial translation of the English. Since the first four lines of the English text paraphrased Psalm 113, verses 1 to 3, it might be expected the Latin words would quote this section of the Vulgate, or Latin Bible (where this psalm is numbered 112, as the ordering varies). It loosely paraphrases bits of the Vulgate while adding one or two other words:

Psalmus 112
1. Alleluia. Laudate pueri Dominum, laudate nomen Domini
2. Sit nomen Domini benedictum ex hoc nunc et usque in sæculum
3. a solis ortu usque ad occasum laudabile nomen Domini

This is considerably abbreviated and altered to:

Laudate nomen Domini,
vos servi Domini;
ab ortu solis usque
ad occasum ejus.

The metre of these lines is 86.76, or one syllable fewer than common metre. The remaining four lines only partially paraphrase the fifth and seventh lines of the English text, but at least have the expected number of syllables:

Decreta Dei justa sunt
et cor exhilarant;
laudate Deum principes
et omnes populi.

The skill with which these words are set to the music varies in each half of each verse, as word placement in the homophonic sections is normally better thought out than the hacking repetitions in the fugal sections.

20th century – two steps forward, two steps back?

The 20th century brought new musicological methods to bear on the music of the past, and a representative edition by Anthony Greening for Oxford University Press[10] is reproduced on page 3 of the companion Acrobat PDF file. This edition includes prefatory staves showing the original clef, part name, and the pitch of the first note. The original text is footnoted, and an organ accompaniment is provided in lieu of a more authentic but less practical lute transcription. Dynamics are suggested editorially, the note values are halved, and bar 16 of the Soprano draws attention to the wrong note in the original 1553 print. The footnotes also include the explanation, "[i]n accordance with other modern editions of this adaptation, repeat marks, which are not in the source, have been added to make the work into an anthem of acceptable length."

It is quite possible therefore that the unknown editor – or possibly several editors, judging by the generation of variant readings – of the "AICSA" version of Laudate had access to both a Novello arrangement of "O come, ye servants" and a modern arrangement of "O come/Laudate" in halved note values, and by fusing the two together to create a new version in Latin only, changed a variety of details in the process.

Quite a few features are unique to this version, however, which suggest the editor chose to simplify the music, or made some elementary errors in doing the work. Equally well a succession of editors could have changed details for the better, while others introduced mistakes which propogated like chinese whispers. It is possible that an editor knew what the Latin words were supposed to be, but did not have them underlaid and so had to adapt them to the music as best s/he could, resulting in some of the more perverse word repetitions. Nevertheless this version's rhythmic declamation of Latin is in many ways superior to the solutions found in the edition by Greening.

Several rhythms have been changed from even minims to dotted rhythms which reinforce the textual stresses in the Latin (bars 4 and 25 in all parts; 34 in soprano and bass, and 37 in the soprano). While the note pitches in the soprano are completely unchanged, the alto and tenor voices have wholly new rhythms and pitches, and the bass part is often shifted up or down an octave. A whole bar is effectively omitted by continuing with the tenor's fugal entry at bar 26 without pause (compare bar 13 of the Roper or Greening versions); incidentally, this restores parity with the first stanza, where the tenor entry continues directly on from the homophonic music at bar 8.

The main differences in part writing are found in the alto and tenor parts during the fugato sections, with such simplifications as to suggest that the singers could not be relied upon to sing the cross rhythms and more difficult leaps independently, or that bars here and there were re-written from memory rather than pre-existing music. The original dotted rhythm of the alto in bars 10–11 is made regular again but adds the passing note, and a dotted rhythm appears in place of a rest and minim in bar 15, with the result that the text perversely repeats the word "ortu" in bar 12. The alto part is likewise simplified in bar 31 and bars 35–37 to smooth out Tye's somewhat fussy rhythms, and melodically restricted to intoning a mere semitone in the last four bars.

As for the tenor part, the second fugato beginning at bar 26 is purged of two suspensions, and all of the awkward leaps down or up a fifth are omitted by substitution of other notes. Likewise the rhythms are simplified so that after the initial words "Laudate Deum" the remaining rhythms until the end are always synchronised with another part or written out plainly in semi-breves.

As noted before there are no drastic changes to the soprano or bass parts, probably on account of the soprano carrying the tune and the bass providing the harmonic anchor. The one alteration of pitch affecting the bass is the change of the penultimate note from a b to a d, and thereby changing the III-I cadence to a more climactic V-I perfect cadence. However, making this single alteration to the final phrase pushes the basses up to the d' above middle c', which may explain why the phrase from bar 36 onwards has been editorially dropped an octave lower than Tye envisaged. It does not however explain the other arbitrary octave changes found in the bass at bars 19 and 35.

21st century – a step forward?

As shown above the two versions of Laudate nomen Domini provide conflicting solutions to issues of harmony, rhythm, and word placement in the fugal sections closing each half, so for exercise the author set himself the task of removing the worst aspects of the AICSA version while attempting to integrate its better features – principally a plainer but more vigorous style – with the music Tye actually wrote. For a discussion of this, the interested reader is invited to turn once more to the Acrobat PDF file.

The dotted rhythms which prolong the tonic accent of the Latin words are retained, and the most obvious hacking repetitions of the text to the AICSA version are smoothed out by comparison with, but not slavish devotion to, the alternate word placements found in Greening's edition. These rhythms are more natural to sing and reflect how Tye might have written the music had he set a single Latin text rather than umpteen stanzas of "gross and bad" English. The most obvious example illustrating this is the alto part from bar 16 to the end, where the words are better adapted from the AICSA version whereas the melody is restored from Tye; the rhythm is necessarily a mixture of both, mainly preferring the more unanimous style of the AICSA version, while restoring Tye's quaver movement in bars 16 and 19.

Apart from the join at bar 13 (already mentioned above) where the tenor propels the music onwards more rapidly than as Tye wrote, the note durations of the other parts sustaining the chord at these joins are corrected in this version. The octave displacements in the bass part are removed, and the deliberation over whether to raise the basses' penultimate note to d' ended with the author trusting Tye's judgement in preference to the perfect cadence.

Finally, in the interest of recording some of the style of a particular choir's rendition, the editor has decided to commit to paper at least one of the alternate rhythms which sometimes arise in less formal performances of Laudate. These involve quite percussive syncopation and staccato delivery of the words at bars 11 and 12, literally giving heart-thumping enjoyment to the words et cor exhilarant.


The act of suggesting some minor alterations to an established classic will appear to be vandalism or desecration in some quarters, and conversely an entrenched tradition may often ignore positive change through sheer slovenliness. Since no one these days would want to perform Tye's music married to his original word settings, attempts at stylistically informed performances of a modern adaptation such as Laudate inhabit an odd middle ground between respecting the composer's intentions on the one hand and largely ignoring them on the other.

The various editions of Laudate just discussed are thus attempts at presenting music, composed more or less by Dr Tye – but which versions offer you more or less than the rest will always be open to debate.


[1] A quick trawl of the world wide web turned up performances in Lebanon by the AUB Choir of the American University of Beirut, and in the Netherlands by the Zevenbergs Vocaal Ensemble. Another choir in the Netherlands, the Sacramentkoor Breda, have produced a CD entitled "Laudate Nomen Domini".

[2] The recent book written by Peter Campbell on the history of the university choirs in Australia — or at least those affiliated with the Australian Intervarsity Choral Societies Association (AICSA) — is entitled "Laudate" : The First 50 Years of the Australian Intervarsity Choral Movement.

[3] The editor (or editors) of the AICSA Laudate is (or, are) not known to the author. This version has been transcribed over the years by many various hands, but latterly made available on the Internet by:
Michael Winikoff, http://goanna.cs.rmit.edu.au/~winikoff/music, or alternatively from http://www.cpdl.org.
Peter Wright, http://akira.apana.org.au/~pete/music.shtml
Karl Aloritias, http://www.arach.net.au/~algernon/laudate/index.html
and, of course,
Philip Legge, http://www.arach.net.au/~algernon/laudate/history.html

[4] Tye's own preface (also written in rhyming common metre) contains the Yoda-like stanza:
Unto the text I do not add, / Nor nothing take away; / And though my style be gross and bad, / The truth perceive you may.

[5] The precise amount of downward transposition is usually taken by modern scholars to be the interval of a perfect fourth, though no theorist of the late Renaissance discusses this aspect of notation with precision. The editor believes other transpositions were likely to have been used, especially for unaccompanied music, though we have no means of knowing to what degree transposition from chiavette influenced the performing pitch of Tye's music.

[6] This transcription owes an obvious debt to EECM 19, pp. 283–5, by undoing most of the editorial decisions.

[7] See the Church Anthem Book, pp. 342–4.

[8] See the New Oxford Easy Anthem Book.

[9] See the New Church Anthem Book.

[10] See Anthems for Choirs 1, pp. 120–2.

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