In Nomine

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In Nomine is a title given to a large number of pieces of English polyphonic, predominantly instrumental music, first composed during the 16th century.

Opening of the "in nomine" passage from Taverner's Gloria Tibi Trinitas Mass


This "most conspicuous single form in the early development of English consort music" (Edwards 2001) originated in the early 16th century from a six-voice mass composed before 1530 by John Taverner on the plainchant Gloria Tibi Trinitas. In the Benedictus section of this mass, the Latin phrase "in nomine Domini" was sung in a reduced, four-part counterpoint, with the plainchant melody in the mean (alto part). At an early point, this attractive passage became popular as a short instrumental piece, though there is no evidence that Taverner himself was responsible for any of these arrangements (Bowers, Doe, and Benham 2001). Over the next 150 years, English composers worked this melody into "In Nomine" pieces of ever greater stylistic range.

In Nomines are typically consort pieces for four or five instruments, especially consorts of viols. One instrument plays the theme through as a cantus firmus with each note lasting one or even two measures; usually this is the second part from the top. The other parts play more complex lines, often in imitative counterpoint. Usually they take up several new motifs in turn, using each one as a point of imitation. However, there are In Nomines composed for solo or duo keyboard instruments and even one for the lute: a fantasy titled Farewell by John Dowland (Edwards 2001).

Examples of the genre include compositions by Christopher Tye (the most prolific composer of In Nomines, with 24 surviving settings), Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Bull, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins, William Lawes, and Henry Purcell, among many others. They can vary in mood from melancholy to serene, exultant, or even playful or hectic (as in Tye's In Nomine "Crye," in which the viols seem to imitate the call of a street hawker).

Composition of In Nomines lapsed in the eighteenth century but was revived in the twentieth century, an early notable example being Richard Strauss's opera Die schweigsame Frau, which quotes a keyboard In nomine by John Bull. Later examples are found in works by Peter Maxwell Davies and Roger Smalley (Edwards 2001). Starting in 1999, the Freiburg new-music organization ensemble recherche began commissioning an ongoing series of short In Nomine compositions for the festival Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik. The series is dedicated to Harry Vogt, director of the festival since 1989, and is collectively titled the Witten In Nomine Broken Consort Book (Blaich 2004, 4–5). Some of the notable composers who have contributed pieces to this series to date include Brian Ferneyhough, Georg Friedrich Haas, Toshio Hosokawa, György Kurtág, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Gérard Pesson, Robert H.P. Platz, Rolf Riehm, Wolfgang Rihm, Salvatore Sciarrino, Hans Zender, and Walter Zimmermann. Graham Waterhouse composed in nomine for cello solo in 2013.


  • In Nomine, by John Bull (MIDI file, 8kb). The In Nomine theme is the highest part, above two other voices that alternate between polyphonic and homophonic textures.
  • In Nomine, by Orlando Gibbons (MIDI file, 10kb). This five-part In Nomine by Orlando Gibbons was probably written for viols but is represented here with organ voices.


  • Blaich, Torsten. 2004. "Zwischen den Zeiten: Zur Geschichte der 'In nomine' Kompositionen". Booklet notes, pp. 4–8, for In Nomine: The Witten In Nomine Broken Consort Book. Ensemble Recherche. 2-CD set. Kairos 0012442KAI (Also in English and French translations, pp. 8–11 and 12–15, respectively.)
  • Bowers, Roger, Paul Doe, and Hugh Benham. 2001. "Taverner, John". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Edwards, Warwick. 2001. "In Nomine". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.

Further reading[edit]

  • Donington, Robert, and Thurston Dart. 1949. "The Origin of the In Nomine". Music and Letters 30:101–106.
  • Reese, Gustave. 1949. "The Origin of the English 'In Nomine'". Journal of the American Musicological Society 2, no. 1 (Spring):7–22.

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