Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and David’s Sorrow



The music we have just heard was written by someone who was once described as one of music’s great survivors. And it is certainly true that Thomas Tomkins lived a remarkably long life for someone of his generation – he was 83 when he died, just a few miles from the Worcester where sixty years of his life had been passed, though he was born in Pembrokeshire, in St David’s, where his father was a Vicar Choral and Organist at the Cathedral. Several of his brothers were musicians too, though none to the level and accomplishment of Thomas.

The young Tomkins moved with his family to Gloucester, when his father became a minor Canon of the Cathedral there, and very soon afterwards, in 1596, Thomas Tomkins was appointed organist at Worcester Cathedral – a post that he was to hold for sixty years, albeit with a rude interruption during the civil war. Around this time, he was a pupil of William Byrd, to whom he was later to respectfully dedicate his song Too much I once lamented in 1622. It is likely that Byrd obtained Tomkins a place as a Gentleman Extraordinary of the Chapel Royal. Such a post required a place at University, and Tomkins was to graduate Bachelor of Music from Magdalen College Oxford in 1607. In 1622, he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, with duties as an organist, and one of the first responsibilities he faced, along with his friend Orlando Gibbons, was the arrangement of the funeral of King James VI, or I. Alas the strain proved too much for Gibbons who died at Canterbury beforehand, leaving Tomkins to deal also with the Coronation of Charles I.

1622 must have been a particularly prolific time for Tomkins as a composer, and it is from this eventful year that tonight’s piece hails. It is a passionate piece of writing, expressive of a passionate king – David – whose victory over his enemies was turned to defeat because of the death of his son, Absalom. Tomkins saw plenty of death in his own days, and much of it the result of religious and civil war. David had been betrayed by Absalom, but even so he desired to forgive him, and wished him alive not killed on the battlefield, even though his treachery had caused David to flee. Having written some of the music for Charles’ Coronation, a short while after Charles’ execution in 1649, Tomkins wrote his Sad Pavan: for these distracted times. A commentary written in music on the horrors imposed by Cromwell’s Parliamentarians, who had previously dismantled his organ at Worcester, desecrated the Cathedral, and then partly destroyed his house – and with it many of his musical scores. Deprived of his living, Tomkins was now in dire financial straits, and was only rescued by the marriage of his son to a wealthy widow and landowner, who provided him with a home for the remaining few years of his life. He died – still theoretically organist at Worcester – in 1656, not living to see the Restoration.

The years of his life were remarkable ones for English Church Music – Byrd, Morley, Gibbons, and Tomkins certainly knew and influenced one another. Tomkins was born just before Tallis’s death, and died himself just before Purcell was born. The times may well have been distracted, but through these distractions and difficulties and their pains wonderful music came to birth. Perhaps it is ever thus.

After all, King David was reputedly no mean musician himself. And in his struggles with Saul, of which we heard something in tonight’s first Lesson, he used those skills to his advantage – cooling Saul’s vicious temper by skilful melody on the lyre. Remember how volatile Saul could be – not long before the event of tonight’s reading, in a rage Saul had hurled his dagger at David trying to pin him to the wall of the royal palace. It must have been a rare musical skill that calmed such anger!

The second reading tonight at one level seems perfectly straightforward. Though it’s not quite as clear as it seems. Jesus has been invited for a Sabbath meal – and there seem to have been genuine points of discussion in which his hosts wanted to hear him. But then, Luke tells us, Jesus launches into an attack on those very hosts. The Sabbath meal is an anticipation of the Kingdom – in a similar way to the way as Christians we believe the Eucharist is. It is therefore a very special and sacred moment, but subject like all things human to abuse. Jesus criticises his hosts for just inviting their influential or rich friends along, so that they will get a return invite! Someone interjects that Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God. So Jesus reminds them of the urgency of the moment. Excuses – even those which were given and which bear a relationship to valid causes of exemption from military service given in Deuteronomy – excuses presume upon the relationship of the invited guest to the host of the banquet. A clear reference to the way God’s people Israel in Jesus’ time have come to behave, too. Their presumptuous attitude won’t do. Nor will their willingness to put things off. It’s now that matters.

Maybe that is a message that comes through tonight’s Evensong – in the readings and in that anthem. Tomkins responded in his music to the world around him as it was, not as he would like it to be. David too could have easily killed Saul. But then he would have inherited a throne by murder, not righteousness – something which even the evil King Saul recognised about David. You are more righteous than me Saul says to David and he implies as a result you will inherit. And then in the reading from Luke’s Gospel, we need to be ready to answer the call now in the present moment. Not as things once were, or as we might like to think that they will be in the future. Right now, discerning what it is that God calls us to. Listening to the message of this present moment. Recognising its urgency. And trusting God for the means to achieve what he calls us to do.

That way, the times will perhaps be rather less distracted than we think that they are!