A possible likeness of John Taverner in an ornamental capital E from the Forrest-Heyther partbooks, c. 1520
Nothing is known of Taverner's activities before 1524. He appears to have come from south Lincolnshire, but there is no indication of his parentage. According to one of his own letters, he was related to the Yerburghs, a well-to-do Lincolnshire family. The earliest information is that in 1524 Taverner travelled from Tattershall, Lincolnshire, to the Church of St Botolph in nearby Boston as a guest singer. Two years later, in 1526, Taverner became the first Organist and Master of the Choristers at Christ Church, Oxford, appointed by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The college had been founded in 1525 by Cardinal Wolsey, and was then known as Cardinal College. Immediately before this, Taverner had been a clerk fellow at the Collegiate Church of Tattershall. In 1528 he was reprimanded for his (probably minor) involvement with Lutherans, but escaped punishment for being "but a musician". Wolsey fell from favour in 1529, and in 1530 Taverner left the college.
As far as can be told, Taverner had no further musical appointments, nor can any of his known works be dated to after that time, so he may have ceased composition. It is often said that after leaving Oxford, Taverner worked as an agent of Thomas Cromwell assisting in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, although the veracity of this is now thought to be highly questionable. He is known to have settled eventually in Boston, Lincolnshire, where he was a small landowner and reasonably well-off. He was appointed an alderman of Boston in 1545, shortly before his death. He is buried under the belltower at Boston Parish Church. The 20th-century composer Sir John Tavener has claimed to be his direct descendant.
His best-known mass is based on a popular song, The Western Wynde (John Sheppard and Christopher Tye later also wrote masses based on this same song). Taverner's Western Wynde mass is unusual for the period because the theme tune appears in each of the four parts, excepting the alto, at different times. Commonly his masses are designed so that each of the four sections (Gloria, Credo, Sanctus-Benedictus and Agnus Dei) are about the same length, often achieved by putting the same number of repetitions of the thematic material in each. For example in the Western Wynde mass, the theme is repeated nine times in each section. As the sections have texts of very different lengths, he uses extended melismata in the movements with fewer words.
Several of his other masses use the widespread cantus firmus technique, where a plainchant melody with long note values is placed in an interior part, often the tenor. Examples of cantus firmus masses include Corona Spinea and Gloria Tibi Trinitas. Another technique of composition is seen in his mass Mater Christi, which is based upon material taken from his motet of that name, and hence known as a "derived" or "parody" mass.
The mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas gave origin to the style of instrumental work known as an In nomine. Although the mass is in six parts, some more virtuosic sections are in reduced numbers of parts, presumably intended for soloists, a compositional technique used in several of his masses. The section at the words "in nomine ..." in the Benedictus is in four parts, with the plainchant in the alto. This section of the mass became popular as an instrumental work for viol consort. Other composers came to write instrumental works modelled on this, and the name In nomine was given to works of this type.
- Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas (6 voices)
- Missa Corona Spinea (6 voices)
- Missa O Michael (6 voices)
- Missa Sancti Wilhelmi (5 voices), sometimes called Small Devotion (possibly a corruption of inscription "S Will Devotio" found in two sources)
- Missa Mater Christi (5 voices)
- The Mean Mass (5 voices)
- The Plainsong Mass (4 voices)
- The Western Wynde Mass (4 voices)
- Christeleison (3 voices)
- Kyrie Le Roy (4 voices)
- Ave Dei Patris filia (5 voices)
- Gaude plurimum (5 voices)
- O splendor gloriae (5 voices)
- O Wilhelme, pastor bone (in honour of Cardinal Wolsey)
- Alleluya. Veni electa (4 voices)
- Alleluya (4 voices)
- Te Deum (5 voices)
- Audivi vocem de caelo (4 voices)
- Ave Maria (5 voices)
- Dum transisset sabbatum (I) (5 voices, also a 4 voice edition)
- Dum transisset sabbatum (II) (4 voices)
- Ecce carissimi
- Ex ejus tumba - Sospitati dedit aegro
- Fac nobis secundum hoc nomen (5 voices)
- Fecundata sine viro (3 voices)
- Hodie nobis caelorum rex
- In pace in idipsum (4 voices)
- Jesu spes poenitentibus (3 voices)
- Magnificat (4 voices)
- Magnificat (5 voices)
- Magnificat (6 voices)
- Mater Christi (5 voices)
- O Christe Jesu pastor bone (5 voices)
- Prudens virgo (3 voices)
- Sancte deus (5 voices)
- Sub tuum presidium (5 voices)
- Tam peccatum (3 voices)
- Traditur militibus (3 voices)
- Virgo pura (3 voices)
- In trouble and adversity (SATB, a contrafactum on his four-part instrumental consort piece In Nomine).
- In women (2 voices)
- Quemadmodum (6 voices or recorders)
- Bowers, Grove online
- These initial details are from Benham 2003, 5.
- The used cantus firmus is 'Gloria tibi Trinitas', an antiphon for the Vespers of Trinity Sunday.
- , published by John Daye in Mornyng and Evenyng Prayer in 1565
- Benham, H. (2003). John Taverner: His Life and Music. Aldershot: Ashgate.
- Roger Bowers: "John Taverner", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 30 April 2007), (subscription access)
- John Taverner (c.1495–1545): article on "Here on a Sunday morning" website
- Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, p30
- Free scores by John Taverner in the Choral Public Domain Library (ChoralWiki)
- Classical Net information