(bc1538; d London, Nov 1574). English composer. In 1553 the parish of St Andrew’s, Holborn, gave ‘yong Whyte’ a payment ‘for ye gret orgayns w[hich] his father gave to ye church’. This almost certainly refers to Robert White, for in 1572, when the Whites were living in Westminster, the instrument was sold by one of the Holborn parishioners to John Thomas and Robert White (probably the composer’s father) and installed in the Abbey. According to Thomas Whythorne ‘mr Whyt waz of Trinite Collez in Cambridz when hee Commensed’. His name occurs frequently in the college accounts for the period 1555–62, first as a chorister under Thomas Preston and later as one of the cantores. The University Grace Book 1542–88 records that White, after ten years of study, was granted the degree of MusB on 13 December 1560, with the condition that he compose a Communion service to be sung at ‘Act Time’ the following year in St Mary the Great’s. At Michaelmas 1562 he became Master of the Choristers at Ely (a post previously held by his father-in-law, Christopher Tye) and remained there until 1566. At Annunciation 1567 a musician named White received a quarterly payment of £4 3s. 4d. as Master of the Choristers of Chester Cathedral; that this was Robert White is supported by Thomas Tomkins’s annotated copy of Morley’s Plaine and Easie Introduction, where Robert White is described as ‘first of Westchester [Chester] and Westminster’. The cathedral accounts and those of the Smiths, Cutlers and Plumbers of Chester show that the cathedral musicians were actively involved in the Chester mystery plays, and White received particularly generous payments for his services. He probably became Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey shortly before Christmas 1569, but his appointment was not confirmed until 3 February 1570. He died of the plague in 1574, leaving property of some substance in Sussex (his will is reproduced in TCM, v, 1926/R).
Almost half of White’s vocal works consist of settings of complete Latin psalms or formal sections from the extended Psalm cxviii (Vulgate no.). The texture and structure of seven of these compositions look back to the large-scale votive antiphon of the early 16th century, and three even retain the old division into triple- and duple-time halves; the remaining five psalm motets are distinguished by continuous full treatment in imitative style. The antiphons and alternatim works are doubtless among the composer’s juvenilia. The latter include a Magnificat on the first tone in the florid manner of Taverner, and four settings of the Lenten compline hymn Christe qui lux es et dies (each beginning ‘Precamur’); however, the responsory Libera me, which sets polyphonically the verses as well as the respond, could have been written as late as 1570. The two sets of Lamentations are particularly fine and represent a high point of Elizabethan choral music. In general White’s anthems lack the technical mastery of his motets, and indeed, apart from the adaptations, only one can unequivocally be attributed to him. The instrumental pieces may well date from his youth; compared with Tye’s idiomatic and adventurous string compositions, they are straightforward and unremarkable and may have orginated as teaching pieces for the Ely choristers.
Despite the limitations of his imitative technique, White’s influence on his contemporaries was considerable. His fantasias (originally for viols) are among the earliest English examples of the genre, and his hymns served as models for two of Byrd’s settings of Christe qui lux es. John Baldwin mentioned him in a poem of 1591 as one of the principal musicians of his generation, and Robert Dow, after his copy of the five-part Lamentations (in the Dow Partbooks, GB-Och 984–8), added in Latin: ‘Not even the words of the gloomy prophet sound so sad as the sad music of my composer’. Certainly both Lamentations and the setting of the Miserere (Psalm l) clearly demonstrate White’s ability to manipulate large musical structures while at the same time exploiting the expressive potential of the text.
Editions: Robert White, ed. P.C. Buck and others, TCM, v (1926/R) [B]Robert White: The Instrumental Music, ed. I. Spector, RRMR, xii (1972) [S]Robert White, ed. D. Mateer, EECM, xxviii, xxix, xxxii (1983–6) [M i–iii]
Magnificat, 6vv, GB-Ob (inc.), Och (inc.); B, M iii
Lamentations, 5vv, Lbl (no text), Ob (incl. inc. copy), Och (incl. inc. copy); B, M iii
Lamentations, 6vv, Lbl (inc.), Lcm (inc.), Ob (inc.), Och (2 inc. copies); B, M iii
Appropinquet deprecatio mea, 5vv, Och; M i
Ad te levavi oculos, 6vv, Och (inc.); B, M ii
Cantate Domino, 3vv, Lcm (no text) (arr. of Exaudiat te)
Deus misereatur, 6vv, Lbl, Och (inc.), US-NYp (attrib. ‘Mr Mundie’); B, M ii
Domine, non est exaltatum, 6vv, GB-Ob (incl. inc. copy), Och (2 inc. copies); B, M
Domine, quis habitabit (i), 6vv, Och (inc.); B, M ii
Domine, quis habitabit (ii), 6vv, AUS-CAnl (inc.), GB-Lbl (inc.), Ob (2 inc. copies) Och (inc.); B, M ii
Domine, quis habitabit (iii), 6vv, Lbl (inc.), Och (inc.); B, M ii
Exaudiat te, Dominus, 5vv, Lbl (inc.), Ob (incl. inc. copy), Och; B, M i
Justus es, Domine, 5vv, Ob, Och; B, M i
Libera me, Domine, 4vv, Lbl; B, M iii
Manus tuae fecerunt me, 5vv, Ob (incl. inc. copy), Och (incl. inc. copy); B, M i
Miserere mei, Deus, 5vv, Ob (incl. inc. copy), Och (incl. inc. copy); B, M i
Portio mea, Domine, 5vv, Och (incl. inc. copy); B, M i
Precamur, sancte Domine (4 settings), 5vv, Lbl, Ob (inc.), Och (incl. inc. copy); B, M iii
Regina caeli laetare, 5vv, Och (inc.); B, M ii
Tota pulchra es, 6vv, Ob (inc.), Och (inc.); B, M ii