Last summer, I had the opportunity to attend the Canadian Renaissance Summer Music School in London, Ontario. The week was filled with an abundance of motets, as well as madrigals and different settings of the Mass Ordinary. The theme of this particular year was the connection between English sacred polyphony and the Italian madrigal. I was made aware of composers such as Walter Lambe (1450–1504), and John Sheppard (1515–1558), as well as Luca Marenzio (1553–1599) and others. Of course, Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585) and William Byrd (1543–1623) were also prominently featured. There was another composer whose music we sang only once, and without much context. That composer, who I am only really discovering now, was Peter Philips.
A Catholic in Protestant England, Peter Philips (c. 1560–1628) was likely a boy chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral under Sebastian Westcote, whose will Philips appears in.[i] Though none of Westcote’s compositions survive, he was of considerable fame in his day, to the point that he was able to continue in his musical positions despite it being well known that he was a Catholic.[ii] Westcote died as a wealthy man in 1582, and it is in this same year that our young Philips leaves England, heading first for Rome, where he became organist for the English Jesuit College.[iii] From here, he moved to Antwerp in 1590. It is not precisely known when Philips was ordained, but by 1610 he was assigned to a canonry in Flanders.[iv] He died in Brussels, leaving behind a vast array of compositions.
While we today know him primarily as a composer, he was most highly regarded as an organist by his contemporaries. The inclusion of many of his compositions in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, an English collection of keyboard works, illustrates this point. His posthumous volume of Mass settings is lost, but his motets numbers in the hundreds. While his music is rather conservative for its time, especially when compared alongside the numerous innovations of a composer such as Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), Philips wrote out of a place of devotion, as his countless motets will attest.