Maxima musarum nostrarum gloria White
Tu peris aeternum sed tua musa manet.
White, thou glorious leader of our art has died
But thy muse lives on in eternity.
(Robert Dow's lament on the death of Robert White
in the London plague outbreak of 1574).
Robert White was born into a well-to-do family with many connections to the musical world (his grandfather, for example, presented an organ to St Andrew’s Holborn. The instrument in question must have been expensive because it ultimately wound up at Westminster Abbey where it was praised for its excellence. If you look at his birth and death dates you can see that he was born into the political, religious, and musical maelstrom that was Tudor ruled England as it swung from Catholic, to protestant, to Catholic to protestant. His talent as a musician must have been apparent fairly early on because family connections alone would not have given him his very rapid rise from choirboy to lay clerk in the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and from lay clerk to master of choristers within a few years of his arrival. He was granted his BMus by Cambridge in 1550 being described in the award as having studied for 10 years. If you think about this for a moment you'll see what I mean about his talents being apparent from an early age. He'd have been about twelve when he first arrived at Trinity, he was seventeen when he was made a lay clerk, shortly thereafter he was made master of choristers and all of that before he was granted his batchelorate at the ripe old age of twenty-two years of age. The other thing about those dates is that his musically formative years included Queen Mary's reign during which Catholic beliefs and ritual practices including sophisticated and complex Latin texted religious music were once again at the heart of the religion of state, deviation from which could result in the loss of livelihood, liberty, life and limb.
His career was one of steady and fairly rapid progress he succeeded Tye in Ely (marrying Tye's daughter along the way) and wound up at heart of the State's musical establishment in 1569 with his appointment as master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey which position he held until he and his family perished during the particularly virulent London plague outbreak of 1574. I think there can be very little doubt that had he not died so young that he would have progressed yet further into the heart of the English religious and musical establishment. Notwithstanding his status as a pillar of the musical establishment I suspect that White's sympathies were Catholic. I think this partly because of the quality of the writing of his Latin music and partly because when he died it was discovered from his accounts that that notorious Catholic gentleman and patron of music Edward Paxton of Barningham Hall, Norfolk owed him a considerably sum of money for his professional services.
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