It has long been assumed that the Latin church music attributed to 'Cornysh' in the Eton Choirbook and other early 16th-century manuscripts was composed by William Cornysh (died 1523), composer, poet, dramatist and actor, active at the royal court from at least 1493. However, recent research has suggested that, while songs, both secular and devotional, are undoubtedly by this colourful figure, the sacred music may well have been by an older William Cornysh (died 1502), very probably his father.
Relatively little is known about Cornysh the elder, but he was clearly active as a musician for a number of years at Westminster Abbey. His name appears in records there as Instructor of the Choristers of the Lady Chapel between 1479 and 1491, and he remained living in Abbey premises until his death. Although he was also granted a pension by the Abbey in 1499, he probably continued to be musically active in his last years; it has been proposed by David Skinner that he may have been elevated to a position in the king's chapel of St Stephen. Certainly, his close association with other composers, such as Edmund Turges and Robert Fayrfax, through membership of the Fraternity of St Nicholas in Westminster, and the preservation of the sacred works attributed to Cornysh alongside theirs in manuscripts such as the Eton Choirbook, would suggest that they may well have been by Cornysh pre rather than his polymath son.
Indeed, William Cornysh the younger seems not to have gained his reputation through church music, but through devising pageants and 'disguysings' for the royal court, notably those for the wedding of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon in 1501, as well as the music for the ceremonies of the Chapel Royal at the celebrated meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I on the Field of the Cloth of Gold in northern France in 1520. Two years later he devised an entertainment for the London visit of Charles V; this took the form of a simple allegory on the negotiations for an alliance between the Emperor and Henry VIII. He is also known to have performed in a number of plays at court. However, in addition to all these activities, William Cornysh junior was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal from September 1509, and, as such, was responsible not only for the education and care of the choirboys, but also for the music to be performed there, so it is certainly not impossible that he composed sacred polyphony.
While the riddle of the two Cornyshes remains to be resolved, it is worth noting that the pieces by Cornysh preserved in the Eton Choirbook, including the five-voice setting of the Salve regina heard tonight, and especially the florid Magnificat, reflect more the musical idiom cultivated by composers of the earlier generation.
Profile © Tess Knighton, 2005