Thomas Preston (c 1500 – 1563)

See below for recordings of Thomas Preston’s music

Thomas Preston was one of the most important musicians from the mid-Tudor period in England. Almost nothing is known of his life but he is thought to have been born around 1500 and died either 1563 or 1564. His “Felix namque” for organ is based on a plainchant melody.

He is known to have been organist at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1543 and, as primarily a church musician, he would have had to have navigated through the stormy religious waters of Henry VIII’s reformation and the changes brought about in the reigns of the Protestant Edward VI and the Catholic Mary before reaching the calmer but still potentially dangerous waters of the reign of Elizabeth I.

During the upheavals of Edward VI and Mary he appears to have been intermittently organist at Trinity College, Cambridge. With the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 he held an appointment right at the centre of royal power as organist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, a post he held until his death.

A number of organ works by Preston survive. The example here is based on the Gregorian plainchant setting of the words “Felix namque es”, a particularly significant text which formed part of the proper for the Missa Salve Sancta Parens (the Votive Mass of Our Lady) if it was celebrated in the period between Christmas and the Feast of the Purification, or any time after Septuagesima. “Felix namque es” was the text sung during the offertory.

Preston’s setting was not intended to be sung but used to replace the singing. The plainchant melody on which the setting is based can be heard throughout in the long bass notes. This would “suggest” the text to those in the congregation who were familiar with the melody, who would be expected to “think” the words rather than sing them.

This may have been composed either during the reign of Henry VIII or Queen Mary. To have done so in the reigns of either Edward VI or Queen Elizabeth could have been dangerous and could have led to accusations of adherence to the old faith.

A number of other composers of the period, such as Thomas Tallis, are also known to have composed works based on the same text.

Listen to recordings of Preston’s music

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