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Nicholas Bugsworthy: an unknown Tudor composer? By Simon Wright, OUP Music

Nicholas Bugsworthy: an unknown Tudor composer?

It seems unconscionably strange that the music of the great English Tudor composer Nicholas Bugsworthy (c.1540-?) should, to this day, remain utterly neglected, nay unknown. After all, the most eminent Tudor church music scholar of his day, Sir Richard Runciman Terry (1864-1938), proclaimed in 1928 (and in no uncertain terms) that Bugsworthy’s music “stands out in conspicuous supremacy by sheer force of its variety and originality, as well as by its special qualities of consummate technique, unquestionable dignity, beauty of outline, and nobility of purpose.” In the years following Terry’s declaration there have been absolutely no performances of works by Bugsworthy (known, incidentally, by his friends both as Boggysworth and Boggs), nothing was included in Oxford University Press’s pioneering and magisterial Tudor Church Music volumes (1922-29), there have been no modern editions or recordings, and no biography of the composer has ever been written. Bugsworthy is (curiously) absent from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and (scandalously, it seems to some) has no entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (despite the inclusion in both eminent publications of his possibly less-brilliant colleagues Thomas Tallis and William Byrd). In summary, it is as if “Boggs” is the composer who, simply put, never was.

In pulling back the veil on Bugsworthy, Terry was jumping on an already slowly-moving (in fact stationary) bandwagon. His colleague the composer Reginald Owen Morris (1886-1948) was, six years before Terry, somehow “in the know.” Morris, when compiling the music examples for his book Contrapuntal Technique in the Sixteenth Century (OUP, 1922) had chosen two passages from Bugsworthy’s scores to illustrate points being made. Morris took his examples from the composer’s collection Conceits and Vapours: looking at these examples now, one is not only struck by the qualities that Terry was soon to identify as, shall we say, “Bugs-worthy,” but also that Boggs had a remarkable ability to pre-empt (with uncanny accuracy and prescience!) the music of many much later composers within the echt-Tudor textures of his works. One of the passages Morris selects (to exemplify sixteenth-century music’s “Proportions of Inequality,” discussed fully in Contrapuntal Technique) almost certainly shows the earliest version of musical patterns later to become threaded within Irving Berlin’s 1911 hit ragtime song Everybody’s Doin’ It Now (of which the opening phrase “Honey, honey, can’t you hear? Funny, funny, music dear” could be construed as pertinent to Bugsworthy). Morris highlights the connection by showing the words which became the celebrated refrain of Berlin’s song in appropriate position within Bugsworthy’s scoring (the composer’s work, claimed Morris happily, “demanded some slight mental activity” of the composer). Understandably, Berlin never acknowledged the debt. It was Morris’s preliminary work that evidently persuaded Terry that everybody should indeed be “doin’ it,” and that now was the time to look the Bugsworthy horse directly in the mouth.

“It is as if Nicholas ‘Boggs’ Bugsworthy is the composer who, simply put, never was.”

“Horse” is, though, perhaps a wrong image. The first discovery that Terry made concerned the armorial bearings of the Bugsworthy family (which was of Yorkshire descent—Nicholas’s Yorkist grandfather had been sadly slain on Bosworth’s field). Terry discovered that a “brock’s head” (badger) sat on the Arms’ escutcheon, while the Supporters were (dexter) “a dachshund argent” and (sinister) “an ourang-outang reguardant proper.” The Bugsworthy family motto was Sorte sua contentus—“content with his lot.” Stirred by these discoveries, Terry probed further into the record, going next to the Bodleian Library, Oxford—repository of the Giggleswick family papers (Nicholas had for many years been that famous family’s household musician, apparently) amongst which, bound up in “quaintly tooled binding,” the Bugsworthy manuscripts could be found. For Terry, this was indubitably the “Eureka!” moment. There he found before him “Madrigals, Ballets, and Fa-las” aplenty, the very Conceits and Vapours upon which Morris had drawn for his book. Then, following, contrapuntal instructions and exercises, In nomines, Fancies, Almains, Pavans, and music for Consort of Viols—nothing less than the stock-in-trade of any composer of Boggs’s day. Most unusual, however, was the collection of airs and songs Wiles and Wantonings which Nicholas had collected and arranged following his time at sea: Bugsworthy had, Terry tells us, “in early youth shipped aboard a Galeass (‘of an hundred and fifty tons burthen’) trading with Eastern Mediterranean ports.” The “gem” within this collection was, Terry discovered, No. 36, a “contrapuntal essay” in which the oriental air “Okar Fu Salaam” becomes the C.F (cantus firmus) in the tenor, combined with “The Querister’s Song of Yorke,” concluding with what Terry labels a “restful Coda.” The whole exercise thus brilliantly draws together materials taken both from Bugsworthy’s childhood experiences as a York Minister chorister and his later seafaring adventures. No other Tudor composer worked in quite this way, and it is clear to see why this particular example might have been overlooked (or unknown?) by Irving Berlin and other composers.  

Maybe it is, in this centenary year of the OUP Music Department, during which we celebrate the story of our great music catalogue, that the Press’s editors could be persuaded to issue “first publications” of works by Boggs? A complete critical edition would quite likely be too onerous an undertaking but given that R.R. Terry eventually identified over ten-thousand unpublished works, it should not present too great a difficulty to select, perhaps, the top 10, and thus start the journey of putting Nicholas Bugsworthy firmly “back on the map.” Another view is that it might be wiser, and undoubtedly safer, to let good-friend Boggs simply remain Sorte sua contentus

One matter of import should perhaps have been mentioned earlier, that it being noteworthy the first fruits of Terry’s research were revealed to an astonished public in a special supplement to the OUP Music Department’s own house journal The Dominant—“stop press,” hastily written and issued as Terry’s remarkable discoveries came to light, and carrying a most significant publication date: 1 April 1928.

The April 1928 issue of The Dominant, including the additional 1 April supplement
From the OUP Archive

Read “Nicholas Bugsworthy” by R. R. Terry in The Dominant, 1 April 1928

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian Ramalingam

    A fascinating minor find! A minor clarification: “Everybody’s Doing It” has nothing to do with a slightly later song on the same theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txbEkAiG1j8
    Another: “Okar Fu Salaam” has nothing to do with Okar, a bitters made on the Okker coast (near Adelaide); but it bears a certain resonance with another academic invocation: “O Watta Gu Siam.” All in all, a worthy contribution to the Academe of Grove’s.

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