Opera in two acts


130 minutes




Commissioned by






Act 1
1. A Court Room
2. The Chapel
3. The Throne Room
4. The Same

Act 2
1. The Courtroom
2. The Throne Room
3. The Chapel
4. The Market-Place in Boston, Lincolnshire


John Taverner, a composer of the early sixteenth century, is on trial for his Lutheran beliefs. He is condemned to the stake, but saved by the intervention of the Cardinal. He ponders where his beliefs have brought him; King and Cardinal prepare the way for the English Reformation. Then, persuaded by the Jester as Death, Taverner repudiates his Catholic church music and takes up the sword as a persecutor of the old religion.

The second act shadows the first. Taverner is now judge in a heresy trial, condemning the White Abbot. The King and the Cardinal complete the removal of the English Church from Rome. Taverner oversees the expulsion of monks from a monastery and the burning of the White Abbot, but in turning his back on so much of his own nature and past, he destroys himself.

John Taverner, composer, organist and choirmaster at Cardinal College in Oxford, is on trial for his involvement in Lutheran heresy. The time is just before the English Reformation (the events on which this scene is based in fact took place in 1528). The White Abbot, who is to be the judge in Taverner’s trial, calls for the accused to be brought in. Once Taverner is in the court, the White Abbot reads out the indictment, to which the musician replies by stating his doubts about the doctrine of transubstantiation (‘My Lord, the first charge I grant’). The White Abbot warns him that he is risking his life by being obdurate, and the chorus reinforces the message that heresy must be eradicated.
The trial then proceeds to the calling of witnesses. Richard Taverner, the composer’s father, describes his son as being always angry with what he most loves (‘My lord Abbot, we always bade him ware of his wrath’). He declares too that ‘his music is witness that he believes’, and begs for mercy, but the chorus repeats its implacable warning. Then Rose Parrowe, Taverner’s mistress and eventual wife, pleads that he was swayed by plausible acquaintances (‘Good my lord, he was my steadfast heart’), but again the White Abbot and the chorus insist that the true faith must be protected.
Third of the witnesses is Taverner’s Priest-Confessor, a Monteverdian countertenor who accepts a bribe (‘The confessional is not violated’) and spills out his accusations. Lastly, despite Taverner’s request that a child not be called into the court, one of his choristers adds more weight to the damning testimony (‘Lord Abbot, I discovered the Informator’).
The White Abbot condemns Taverner to burning at the stake, but at once distant trumpets herald the arrival of the Cardinal (the character in the opera is not named, but clearly Wolsey is the model). He pardons Taverner because he needs him as a musician for his college (‘My Lord Abbot and members of our holy court’). He then departs for council with the King, whither we shall follow him in the third scene of the act.

SCENE 2: THE CHAPELMeanwhile Taverner is back at his work, standing at a desk while the monks in the chapel are apparently singing the office, though in fact they are recapitulating in Latin the story so far, and doing so to music which, like so much in the opera, is developed from the original, Taverner’s own.
In an impassioned soliloquy (‘If I follow their lying vanities’), Taverner gives voice to his doubts. Since he cannot honestly return to the safe dictates of the Church, he must find out the truth for himself. But how is he to distinguish truth from falsehood? He ends by putting his trust firmly in God, and his prayer is taken up in Latin as a dark monotone chant by the monks as they leave.
The ensuing transition, one of the longer orchestral passages that link the scenes in each act, leads from the predominantly slow tempo of this chapel scene up to a presto for the fanfares that open the next.

The orchestra now falls silent, and the burden of the musical argument is taken over by a small group of musicians playing lute and viols on stage. The dramatic argument meanwhile is conducted between the King and the Cardinal.
Just as the Cardinal is not named as Wolsey, so the King is not named as Henry VIII, but the situation is theirs. The King speaks of the need for reformation in the Church, and of his own need for a divorce. The Cardinal temporizes, and the King is driven to declare his own misgivings about the Catholic faith (‘We begin to doubt if the Creature of Rome’). He appeals to conscience as the highest court, whereupon the Cardinal, left alone, expresses his anxiety about the dangerous course events must take, and the Jester, who all along has been pointing out the real motives of King and Cardinal, also whispers of fear as he reveals himself as Death.

The orchestra has gradually taken over from the stage musicians at the end of the last scene, and now without any transition the Jester calls upon Taverner in order to catechize him in his spiritual beliefs. He demands a confession so that the musician may save his soul, which appears as a white dove held by two monks, one in white, the other in black. They sing of seemingly incompatible doctrines, then strangle the dove and burn it.
Taverner is confused. The Jester seizes the moment to draw attention to all the superstitions, ceremonies and trifles that the Church has grafted onto primitive Christianity. Taverner is duly enraged, and has a vision of the Pope hysterically screeching as Antichrist. The Jester, though, wants more from Taverner than the rejection of superfluity and idolatry (‘But this is not enough, John’), for a just rage against distortion of truth can be turned into a soul-destroying nihilism. This is what the Jester now achieves, and he orders Taverner to reject his family and his art in the forms of Richard Taverner and Rose Parrowe. Rose sings as the composer’s muse. It was, she says, natural for him to use his art in the service of the Church; he should not worry about theology but continue with his work of making music (‘You used us, John’). If he denies his art, then he denies the most important part of himself. Taverner is convinced by this crucial argument, but the reconciliation of musician and muse is interrupted when the Jester urgently calls for treble demons to rush on and mount a travesty of a street Passion play. The Priest-Confessor from the first scene appears as God the Father; the Jester mounts the Cross (‘I pray you people’); and Richard Taverner and Rose Parrowe adopt the postures of St. John and the Virgin Mary. The composer is mentally and morally shattered (‘Here is the rest of all your business’). The vision disappears, and the Jester demands Taverner’s confession. He repudiates his music (‘I repent me very much that I have made songs to popish ditties in the time of my blindness’) and collapses. Reinspired by the Jester, the composer finally rises up a new man: a Protestant zealot determined to further his new faith with the sword (‘There shone about me a great light’). The Jester shrieks mock salutations.
Each scene of the second act reflects a scene in the first: in both cases the opening scene is a trial, but this time Taverner is the judge and the White Abbot the victim, a Catholic victim of post-Reformation Protestant persecution. Again the charge is heresy, to which the White Abbot replies by denouncing those who change their faith to suit the rimes (‘Sir, it is to their eternal shame’). The witnesses are the same, and the chorus makes its interjections, but everything is hurried, nightmarish. Richard Taverner tells of the White Abbot’s injuction to withstand the King’s forces and hold fast to Rome; Rose, though resistant to being misused, accuses him of carnality. The Priest-Confessor is again paid for his testimony, and the boy gives evidence of idolatry. With relish, Taverner condemns the White Abbot to be burned at the stake. Once more the Cardinal attempts to interrupt the proceedings, but this time he has no face, and no voice. Instead we hear a wild spinning in the orchestra as a great Wheel of Fortune revolves on stage, spun by the Jester, Death.
This second Throne Room scene, like the first, is accompanied not by the pit orchestra but by a stage band – this time one of Renaissance wind instruments and organs, playing pastiches of period dances and keyboard fantasies. As the scene proceeds, the music’s world moves forward from the early sixteenth century to the early seventeenth. The Cardinal brings news that the Pope has prohibited the King’s remarriage; the King determines to cut off payments to Rome, sure that the people are behind him. He then pronounces himself head of the Church in England, and the Jester re-vests the Cardinal as an Anglican Archbishop. He, as Archbishop, gives his blessing on the King’s new marriage, and the two of them agree on the need to dissolve the monasteries. SCENE 3: THE CHAPEL The White Abbot and his monks are singing mass, using extracts from the Holy Week liturgy, including Christ’s prophecy that one of his disciples would betray him. Taverner stiffens his resolve by remembering the party line on dissolution (‘Charity is fled from our religious houses’). As the White Abbot moves towards the climax of the ceremony, so Taverner loudly declaims his horror at the ‘scandal’ and his own part in it, ‘providing the furniture’ in his music. The monks sing the Sanctus, and then at the moment of Elevation a Captain comes in to dispossess them. He pours the sanctified wine to the ground, and the monks depart singing the Benedictus from a mass by the historical Taverner.
The final scene corresponds to the last scene of the first act, but the earlier intimate dialogue is replaced by a big choral tableau. A crowd has assembled for the burning at the stake of the White Abbot (‘This is the work of John Taverner’); as the people arrive, Taverner is writing an official report (‘To the right honourable my singular good Lord Privy Seal’). He then moves to the stake, and calls on the White Abbot to say his last. The White Abbot does so in the opera’s longest solo (‘I am fell into the hands of those’). He sings of the question at the heart of the opera, that of making moral decisions without reference to a tradition such as the Church has provided, of the opportunity for evil to take control when the barriers have been swept aside. Taverner signals for the fire to be lit, and the choir calls for mercy; Rose declares to Taverner that he has destroyed himself, and he sings a last intense prayer ‘out of the lowest dungeon’. As the curtain falls, off stage recorders play his music, all that is left of the man.
Paul Griffiths
This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.

Composer Notes

John Taverner was born around 1490, probably in Tattershall, whence he was summoned in 1526 by Wolsey to Cardinal’s College, Oxford, for the post of ‘Informator’, which included playing the organ, and looking after the choristers at St. Frideswide’s, now the Cathedral Church of Christ.

In 1528 he was accused, along with others employed at the college, of heresy, but was released from prison at the personal intervention of Cardinal Wolsey.

After the religious changes brought about by Henry VIII, Taverner became an agent of Thomas Cromwell, and a ruthless persecutor and destroyer of monastic establishments. We assume he gave up music – the works we know predate this period. Foxe records that he ‘reptented him very much that he had made songs to popish ditties in the time of his blindness’, but the fact remains that these ‘songs’ are as fine as anything written in Europe at the time, and constitute some of the best music of our English inheritance.

The letters describing the burning of the Rood and the monk at Boston, quoted in Act 2, scene 4, are from Taverner’s own hand, addressed to Cromwell.

In the text, I have not only drawn on the few facts known of Taverner, but combed state papers, letters, contemporary sermons, biographies, diaries, poetry, plays, records of heresy trials, etc., to give the record of John Taverner as wide an application and meaning as possible. The text, therefore, consists of quotations, applied and ordered to suit the sense and circumstance.

I started sketching in 1956, while studying in Manchester, and completed the text in 1962 at Princeton, New Jersey, and the music in 1968 in Dorset. After the fire at my cottage there, some of it had to be reworked from sketches.

Programme Notes


First Performance

Royal Opera House, London

Wednesday, 12 July 1972

Edward Downes  conductor