John Rastell's work affected our liturgical experience forever

In the classical music world we are used to celebrating all sorts of anniversaries. There is barely a concert series or a festival that does not hang its programming on some kind of “milestone”. It might be 100 years since this musician’s birth, 450 years since that composer’s death or 950 years since a venue where music has been continually heard on a daily basis was founded (as happened late last year for Westminster Abbey).

My candidate does not have a certain date of birth or even an exact date of death – although (I feel obliged to calculate) the most likely anniversary of his passing would be 480 years this year. What we do know is that John Rastell (born c1475), brother-in-law of St Thomas More, was a unique and immensely important figure in the history of music who in turn affected our liturgical experience forever.

His biographer Cecil H Clough has written that he was “a prime example of the turn of fortune’s wheel in Tudor England”. After a period working in his hometown of Coventry (where we know that Thomas More visited his sister Elizabeth and her husband), Rastell managed a thriving legal practice for 20 years in London.

He appears to have ultimately succumbed to social pressure, or at least to have tried to second-guess the winds of change, by abandoning the “old religion” and making positive noises about the new ways of thinking. Such opportunism evidently tipped over into a futile fervour when, towards the end of his life in the spring of 1535, he repeatedly visited the Charterhouse, attempting to “convert” its monks.

But it was as a printer that Rastell made his mark, picking up projects reflecting his societal associations. Perhaps his first printed book, in 1509, was a biographical work with translation by Thomas More. Towards 1520, he developed a remarkable new way of printing music.

Rastell’s own moral play, A new interlude and a mery of the nature of the .iiij. elements, included a three-part song “Tyme to pas” and was the first attempt anywhere in Europe to print a musical score. Rastell’s way of working was clearly established very quickly, since we know that he provided the music in the same way for the ballad “A wey mornynge” around 1526.

The impact of Rastell’s work should not be underestimated and can hardly be calculated. His single-impression printing method triumphed over the system developed by his rival the Venetian printer and publisher Ottaviano Petrucci (1466–1539), where a sheet of paper was pressed at least twice, if not three times, beginning with the stave (or guide lines) and the notes, and then possibly the words.

Rastell’s system, though somewhat rougher in outcome, was significantly more economical in every sense than Petrucci’s. The speed of its results enabled faster and larger circulation. Most importantly, it was cheaper and so patrons of large volumes were found more easily.

In short, the revolution in music publishing and the consequent easy distribution at a formative point in its development is of great interest to historians of sacred music. Ultimately, it meant the securing of a system dating back to Guido of Arezzo (born c991) for worldwide consumption. It also means that the relationship between liturgy and music has been intertwined not only in its language but also in its representation for 1,000 years.

Petrucci’s name has enjoyed a recent renaissance in the form of International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), also known as the Petrucci Music Library. (This resource itself has famously transitioned from being seen as a controversial repository that swerves copyright issues to being reborn as an essential go-to resource for musicians the globe over.)

But Rastell’s name appears to be taken for granted and languishes in obscurity. Indeed, musicians working in the Catholic Church must confess that, were he not part of a saint’s extended family, we might not necessarily learn of him. It is clear, however, that Rastell’s greatest achievement is probably music’s single most important achievement in the second millennium – that of being able to transmit a meaning, succinctly and effortlessly, and to inspire and lift up hearts in a sacred setting.

The passing of time makes us remember a remarkable figure in the music world. For those who celebrate the achievements of important figures in music history, we should remember and celebrate him. And as with all the faithful departed – regardless of their anniversaries – we should pray for him.