The Eton Choirbook

The Eton Choirbook (Eton MS 178) is a volume of manuscript music created between 1500 and 1504 for use in religious services in Eton College Chapel. The large and handsome volume played an integral part in the worship of the Chapel of the King’s College of our Lady of Eton beside Windsor, resting open on a lectern whilst the choir stood around it to sing its music. Most of the music is finely wrought settings of the Magnificat or of motets devoted to the Blessed Virgin, responding to the Marian cult as practised at Eton as a site of pilgrimage. Still kept at Eton College Library, it contains a repertory which is almost unique, as it is the earliest and most complete Tudor choirbook to have survived to the present. Through its survival – at the site for which it was made – the Choirbook gives us access to a form of worship and a musical tradition that was violently disrupted and almost obliterated by the Reformation. Its music is the subject of considerable scholarly attention and has been performed and recorded repeatedly over the last 120 years. It captures a sound-world of late medieval England which would otherwise have been lost to silence. In 2018 the Choirbook was inscribed on the UK UNESCO Memory of the World Register, joining such illustrious companions as the Domesday Book, the Magna Carta, and the death warrant of Charles I. It is the first music manuscript to be inscribed.

The Choirbook has been fully digitised and can be viewed via the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music. The Choirbook is occasionally on display to the public – please visit our access  and exhibitions pages for more details.

What was the Choirbook for?
The Eton Choirbook embodies the rituals and practice of Eton College Chapel as a popular pilgrimage site at the height of pre-Reformation piety. It supplied music for the Salve ceremony, a ritual of prayer and singing before the statue of the Blessed Virgin that was performed at sunset in towns and cities across Catholic Christendom. The chapel choir would have stood around the book to sing from its music. The Salve ceremony was relatively simple worship to which increasingly sophisticated music was dedicated; as such it accommodated both lay and clerical participants, rich and poor, active and passive engagement.

Why is there a Choirbook at Eton?
Henry VI wrote in Eton’s statutes that the Salve ceremony must be performed in chapel every day. Later, at the beginning of the 16th century, Eton’s choral foundation flourished under Henry VII’s sponsorship of the college and through an associated bid to canonise its Lancastrian founder Henry VI (a political tactic to sanctify the Tudors’ Lancastrian lineage). The college paid for a glorious manuscript to be made, assembling the finest music for the choir to sing and making a beautiful instrument of worship. The volume fell out of use in the 1520s, but survived the Reformation, and has been at Eton ever since.

What is special about the Choirbook’s music?
The Choirbook preserves a repertoire of English music that would otherwise be almost entirely lost. Its music shows the development of English polyphony  – music in which the parts move independently rather than harmonising a single tune – as it incorporated ideas from the Continental Renaissance and became more elaborate.

The early music of the Choirbook is polyphonic but non-imitative – the lines flow free of harmonic chords sung in strict rhythm, but do not echo each other’s melodies. The second phase uses such imitation, as well as a cantus firmus, in which one part sings a pre-existing melody (often lifted from liturgical plainchant or a secular tune) and the other parts sing in polyphony around it. The second phase also sees increasing use of false relations, where the lines of a couple of parts lead them to two notes which ‘clash’ with each other, being only a semi-tone apart. This form of dissonance became a distinctive feature of Tudor polyphony. In the third phase, the use of cantus firmus techniques disappear and imitation across the parts becomes more frequent.