Robert Parsons


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About Robert Parsons

Robert Parsons contributed mightily to the first generation of English Protestant composers, though the only historical documentation of his life begins but 11 years before his death. At Michelmas and Christmas of 1560, the Master of the Royal Chapel authorized payment from the Royal Exchequer to Parsons. His duties, which probably had been going on for some time, likely involved training and "ushering" the boy sopranos of the Chapel; some of Parsons' English songs may even have been written for the boys' participation in the Elizabethan theater. Parsons apparently applied for, and attained, a vacancy in the Chapel Royal itself in 1563; he was enrolled as an "epistoler" in October of that year, and became a full "Gentleman" of the Chapel in January 1564. Only three other documentary traces of his life survive. He was granted the Crown leases for three rectories near Lincoln in 1567, he married his wife Helen by November 1571, and the poor man died in January 1572. It seems he was on a journey to recruit new choirboys for the Chapel Royal, had an accident of some sort, and drowned in the River Trent at Newark.
Some evidence for his earlier career surfaces from the extant musical compositions. Certainly as with English musicians of his time (and ours), he was raised steeped in the music of the church. Some of his earliest compositions, like those of Thomas Tallis, must have suited the Catholic Chapel of Queen Mary. Also like Tallis, Parsons continued to write some Latin-texted music after Elizabeth I returned England to the Protestant faith. Some of these even suggest that Parsons himself may have remained Catholic in his own heart, though he also wrote Anglican service music and courtly instrumental entertainments. The young William Byrd may have known Parsons in Lincoln, and took his very place in the Chapel Royal.