John Merbecke and Reformed Simplicity in Worship

(Ben Carmack) #1

With the Clearnote Conference on worship set to begin, a shout out to John Merbecke, courtesy of the notes for a YouTube video of Merbecke’s setting of the Nicene Creed to music.

"John Merbecke (c. 1510-c. 1585) is most remembered today for his plainsong setting of the Anglican liturgy in 1550. By 1531, his name headed the list of choristers at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. He was arrested in 1543, charged with heresy and condemned to death for owning and writing a nearly completed English concordance of the Bible and Calvinist papers. The Bishop of Winchester won a reprieve for him, while the Windsor martyrs burned at the stake are considered the first English protestant martyrs.

"Released from imprisonment, Merbecke returned to St. George’s until his death. In 1550, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer asked him to provide service music ‘containing so much of the Order of Common Prayer as is to be sung in Churches.’ Reformers considered that Plainsong had been used from time immemorial but had given way to an ‘operose’ and intricate style of music in which the people could neither take part nor perceive the meaning of the words, even if they understood Latin. The intent was to return to a simpler style that could be understood and sung by the entire congregation, based on the principle ‘for every syllable a note.’

“In the same year that Merbecke wrote ‘The booke of Common Praier Noted’, he expressed regret for his Catholic compositions and association with the Chapel Royal and affirmed his Calvinist leanings, writing that ‘. . . in the study of music and playing on organs, I consumed vainly the greatest part of My life.’ His book and the 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer became obsolete with the release of the 1552 edition of the Book of Common Prayer.”

(Ben Carmack) #2

An aside: a former church we attended taught us Merbecke’s setting of the Nicene Creed, and we have found it useful as a way to memorize the Creed. Your mileage may vary. But I had not known that Merbecke’s composition was the result of a deliberate attempt to simplify worship music for the benefit of the common man.