A contemporary of William Cornysh and John Taverner, Robert Fayrfax was the most successful English Tudor composer, receiving high honors from King Henry VIII. In 1511, he earned the very first doctor of music degree granted by Oxford University. Although he wrote in many genres, both vocal and instrumental, he is best remembered for his mass settings.
The first 30 years of his life yield no biographical information. Historical records first identify him in 1497 as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, a position he held until his death. He received two doctorates in music, the first at Cambridge University (1504), for which he wrote the mass O quam glorifica, and the second from Oxford University (1511). A favorite of Henry VIII, he accompanied the king as lead musician to the highest courtly functions, such as the funeral of Henry VII, the coronation of Henry VIII (both in 1509), and Henry VIII's famous meeting with Francis I of France (1520). In addition to numerous monetary and honorary rewards, in 1514 he was made Knight of the King's Alms, a position which guaranteed a lifetime annuity.
Twenty-nine works survive, including six cyclic masses, votive antiphons, Magnificat settings, as well as secular part-songs and instrumental dances. Only a few can be dated; comparing the early and late works shows that, while his contrapuntal technique is remarkably consistent, the mature compositions achieve greater independence of the voices and more controlled dissonant effects.
Most of his religious music is scored for the typical English five-voice ensemble (soprano, alto, high tenor, tenor, and bass). Stylistic features which distinguish his works include a greater propensity for textural and metrical contrasts, along with a restrained melodic style which eschews acrobatic vocal displays in favor of a more balanced line. Fayrfax's compositions show a rather advanced sense of harmonic movement, particularly at cadences. Imitation is used more for decorative effect than as a contrapuntal process.
The mass O bone Jesu provides an early example of English parody technique, borrowing material from his antiphon of the same name. The other five are written in the time-honored cantus firmus genre, meaning that free-composed voices are set in counterpoint to a phrase of plainchant, sung by the tenor in long sustained notes. His handling of the cantus firmus varies greatly: the highly technical doctoral composition, Missa O quam glorifica, uses a very long cantus heard only once per movement. At the opposite extreme, the Missa Albanus has a nine-note cantus, repeated frequently in many clever variations, at times forwards, backwards, or upside-down. All the masses alternate full sections with passages scored for fewer voices, more vocally demanding, but never overtly brilliant.