Hugh Aston (c. 1485 – buried Leicester St Margaret's 17 November 1558) was an English composer of the early Tudor period. While little of his music survives, he is notable for his innovative keyboard and church music writing.
Little is known about the early life of this important early Tudor composer, and his date and place of birth are currently unknown. However, on 27 November 1510 he supplicated for the degree of BMus at Oxford University, proposing for his examination an oration on the volumes of Boethius, and the submission (and performance) of a mass and an antiphon. He stated that he had studied music in the University Music School for eight years (suggesting that he must have been in his mid-20s by that date, hence the estimated date of birth of around 1485). Presumably his study of Boethius was of the 6th century philosopher's De Institutione Musica which had been published in Venice in 1491 and 1492 (one of the first musical works to be published). The University records show that his examination was successful, and the University ordered that the University Proctors supervising the examination should retain the two manuscripts. It seems most likely that these were Aston's five part Missa Te Deum Laudamus and the clearly associated antiphon Te Deum Laudamus. Though the original manuscripts are not in Music School archives today, excellent early copies of ca. 1528-30 almost certainly made for Cardinal's College (now Christ Church) Oxford are in the Forrest-Heather Part Books now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
After 1510 he may have lived in London, and it is suggested that he may have had some association with the court of Henry VIII. In 1520/21 he was paid by the Dean and Chapter of the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick, to advise on the purchase and installing of a new organ. By 1525 at the latest Aston was settled and working in Leicester, as a verbatim record of his evidence given to a Bishop’s Visitation on 27 & 28 November 1525 is preserved in the Lincoln Diocesan Records, and he seems to have stayed in Leicester for the rest of his life. His appointment in Leicester was that of Keeper of the Organs and Magister Choristerorum (Master of the Choristers) at the major Royal foundation, the Hospital and College of St Mary of the Annunciation. This was first established by Henry, 3rd Earl of Lancaster in 1330, and re-endowed and substantially enlarged by his son Henry, 4th Earl and later 1st Duke of Lancaster under a Charter of 24 March 1355/6. Later known as The Newarke, the institution had a Dean and twelve Canons (later termed Prebends), thirteen Vicars-Choral, four Lay Clerks and six (boy) choristers. By the late 15th century it had achieved a high status and musical reputation and had acquired the privilege, apparently shared only with the Chapels Royal, of having the right to recruit outstanding musicians and singers from other institutions without their consent, in other words to poach the very best musicians of the country. Perhaps the already highly regarded Aston was himself recruited by The Newarke using this privilege, but there seems to be no surviving documentary evidence of exactly how or when he came to be engaged by the Leicester Choral College.
The Charters required among many other things the use of the Salisbury (“Sarum”) Rite, a daily sung Mass in honour of Our Lady, and also the singing of Matins, a High Mass and Vespers on more than two dozen high feasts, led by the Dean in Choir, so there would have been a heavy musical programme for the choir of around sixteen (including at least some of the Vicars) and its musical director. His initial salary was £10 a year (only £2 a year less than that of the Dean) and by 1540 this had increased to £12 a year. In addition Aston, also referred to in some documents as a singer and organist, was entitled to receive further significant payments for additional services such as funerals. In 1525 he had been recommended to Cardinal Wolsey as the founder director of music at his new Cardinal’s College, Oxford, (now Christ Church College and Cathedral) but Aston seems to have declined the offer and in any event Wolsey appointed John Taverner instead. Aston continued at The Newarke until shortly before the final dissolution of the Foundation at Easter 1548, and on retirement he received a £12-a-year state pension in respect of his Newarke College office. By this time he must have been holding at least advisory positions at a number of other important Midlands choral institutions, since he also received further state pensions totalling £6 13s. 4d. in respect of loss of office at six other suppressed choral institutions: Sully and Pipewell in Northamptonshire, Coventry and Kenilworth in Warwickshire, and the Leicestershire abbeys of Launde and St Mary de Pratis (= Leicester Abbey).
In Leicester the College provided him with a rent-free house just outside the South Gate of the Borough more or less directly opposite the main gate of The Newarke in the Borough’s First (soon to be renamed Southgates) Ward. It seems likely that before or at the time of the dissolution of the College the property passed to Aston or his family and what was presumably the same property seems to have remained his family’s home to at least his grandson’s time in the early 17th century.
Before 1530 a Hugh Aston, almost certainly the musician as there are no others of the same name recorded in 16th century Leicester, was already representing the Southgates Ward in which he lived as a member of the Town council and later as a Borough Alderman, and by 1550 the Ward was even being referred to in the Leicester Borough Records as “the Ward of Mr Hugh Aston”. From 1532 he was a Justice of the Peace, Coroner for two years, Auditor of Accounts for a total of 16 years, Mayor for 1541-1542, one of the two Members of Parliament for the Borough for the 1555 Parliament, and remained an Alderman to his death. The exact date of this is not known, but he was buried on 17 November 1558 in the parish church for the Southgates Ward, St. Margaret's. On 15 November 2008 a 450th anniversary Commemorative Service was held in St. Margaret’s, featuring two of Aston’s surviving antiphons, the two known keyboard pieces and much of the Sarum Rite plainsong music for the Requiem Mass of the pre-Reformation Sarum liturgy, which had been restored by Queen Mary.
Most of the buildings of the medieval Hospital and College of the Newarke, including the Collegiate Church much admired by Leland during his visit in ca. 1535, were demolished soon after the Dissolution, and the campus of De Montfort University today covers almost the whole site. On 17 March 2010 Patrick McKenna, founder and Chief Executive of Ingenious Media, declared open De Montfort University's new £35 million Faculty of Business and Law, adjacent to the great Gateway to The Newarke and only 100 metres or so from the site of Aston’s Hangman’s Lane house: this new building is called the Hugh Aston Building. The event was also marked by performances by singers from the choir of the Holy Cross Dominican Priory, New Walk, Leicester (directed by David Cowen) of sections from Aston's Te Deum Mass and Te Deum, two of Aston's keyboard compositions, and some of the 'Sarum Rite' medieval plainsong for 17 March - St. Patrick's Day.
Four sacred vocal compositions by Aston survive substantially complete:
- Missa Te Deum (five voices)
- Missa Videte manus meas (six voices)
- Gaude mater matris Christe (five voices)
- Te Deum laudamus (five voices)
Other compositions survive in fragments.
In addition, he wrote keyboard music, most of which shows an unusually progressive use of idiomatic keyboard: his Hornepype in particular is often cited as an example of early idiomatic keyboard writing. Some other famous early keyboard pieces have been attributed to him on stylistic grounds, including the often-recorded and anthologized My Lady Careys Dompe.
- Tudor Church Music vol. X, Hugh Aston, John Marbeck,and Osbert Parsley, p.xiv. London, Oxford University Press, 1929.
- Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus,De Institutione Musica. Translated, with Introduction and Notes as Fundamentals of Musicby Calvin M. Bower. Edited by Claude V. Palisca. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
- Oxford University: Register of Congregations. Oxford History Society vol. 38 (N.S.) pp. 106-7.
- Digital Image Library of Medieval Music: Forrest-Heather Part Book - taken from Census-Catalogue of Manuscript Sources of Polyphonic Music 1400-1550, 5 vols. (Neuhausen-Stuttgart, 1979-1988.
- The History of the Hospital and the New College of the Annunciation of St Mary in The Newarke, Leicester, A. Hamilton Thompson. Leicester: Leicestershire Archaeological Society, 1937
- Hugh Aston (ca. 1485-1558): Composer and Mayor of Leicester, Patrick J Boylan. Leicestershire Historian no. 44, pp.26-30, 2008.
- Bergsagel, Grove online
Music for Compline, Stile Antico, Harmonia Mundi USA HMU 907419. Includes Aston's Gaude, virgo mater Christi and works by Byrd, Tallis, Sheppard and White.
Two Tudor Masses for the Cardinal, Christ Church Oxford Cathedral Choir, directed by Stephen Darlington. Metronome UK 1998, MET CD1030. Disc 2 is Hugh Aston's Missa Videte Manus Meas.
Three Marian Antiphons : Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, directed by Scott Metcalfe. Blue Heron 2010, B003KWVNXS.
References and further reading 
- Aston, Hugh (d. 1558), Nick Sandon. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
- Tudor Church Music vol. X, Hugh Aston, John Marbeck,and Osbert Parsley. Oxford University Press, 1929
- John Bergsagel. "Aston, Hugh", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 1980), i, 661-662.
- Hugh Aston (ca. 1485-1558): Composer and Mayor of Leicester, Patrick J Boylan. Leicestershire Historian no. 44, pp. 26–30, 2008.
- Another mass by Hugh Aston? Nick Sandon. Early Music, vol. 9(2), pp. 184 – 191, 1981.
- Hugh Aston's Variations on a Ground. Oliver Neighbour. Early Music, vol. 10(2), pp. 215 – 216. 1982.
- The History of the Hospital and the New College of the Annunciation of St Mary in The Newarke, Leicester, A. Hamilton Thompson. Leicester: Leicestershire Archaeological Society, 1937.
- Visitations in the Diocese of Lincoln Volume 3, 1517 - 1531, edited by A. Hamilton Thompson. Lincoln Record Society vol. 37. 1947.
- Records of the Borough of Leicester Volume III, 1509 - 1603, M. Bateson. Cambridge University Press. 1905.
- Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4
- F. Ll. Harrison, Music in Medieval Britain. London, 1958.
- Free scores by Hugh Aston at the International Music Score Library Project
- Ave Maria ancilla trinitatis (excerpt) performed by Blue Heron Renaissance Choir
- For new performing editions by Nick Sandon of five of Aston's choral works see Antico Edition, UK