It is perhaps only fitting that, along with the Liturgy of Marriage, the text of the Burial Service has become part of the consciousness of the English-speaking world. Archbishop Cranmer's superb selection of biblical quotation is itself much-quoted. But most interesting of all is the instruction in the Book of Common Prayer that some of these 'sentences' may be sung, and a number of composers have composed music for them.
Thomas Morley was one of the first to set the Burial Sentences to music, but little is known of it before its re-discovery by William Croft. Perhaps the destruction during the Civil War and Commonwealth can account for the lack of contemporary sources of this well-loved collection of short pieces. However, it is more curious that the earliest complete sources date from the 18th century. The earliest partial source is a tenor part book (Tenbury MS 1382) c. 1617 of Man that is born, In the midst of life, and a different setting of Thou knowest, Lord.
Of all the sentences, Thou knowest, Lord, is the most likely to be apocryphal. The music does not seem consistent with the other sentences; and the phrase 'suffer us not' has a tellingly baroque chromaticism. It is absent from many of the sources.
Obviously, the music was originally set to the text of the Elizabethan Prayer Book of 1552, using the text of Coverdale's Great Bible. However, the sources use the text of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which uses the King James' Version. These different attempts to fit the text to the music have met with varying degrees of success. This edition is a reconstruction of the original text to the music.
The most often-performed and well-loved setting is that by William Croft. It is one of the great traditions of English sacred choral music, having been performed at every state funeral since its inception. When Croft composed it, he included the setting of Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts by Henry Purcell (Z.58 c). He later gave the reason for doing so:
“In that service, there is one verse composed by my predecessor, the famous Mr. Henry Purcell, to which, in justice to his memory, his name is applied. The reason why I did not compose that verse anew (so as to render the whole service entirely of my own composition) is obvious to every Artist; in the rest of that service composed by me, I have endeavoured as near as I could, to imitate that great master and celebrated composer, whose name will for ever stand high in the rank of those who have laboured to improve the English style.”
The little known composer, Thomas Wilkinson (fl. 1575—1612), also set music to the text of the Burial Service. His six-part setting (SSATTB) is curiously joyful, sounding something like the festal Venetian music of the Gabrielis! This is entirely in keeping with the late 16th-century Evangelical theology, in which God's promise of eternal life through salvation over-powers the fleshly misery of mortality.
William Boyce also composed a set, which has been over-shadowed by the popularity of Croft's setting.
Motets set to the words of the Burial Service feature in Musica Deo Sacra, the collection of Tomkin's work published posthumously in 1668.
Other composers to have set the text include Hugh Blair (1864 - 1932), and John Goss (1800 - 1880). Henry Purcell, of course, composed some of the words (from 'Man that is born' onwards) for a funeral in 1674 (Z.17A, Z.58A), revising them in 1678 (Z.27) and using them with a new version of 'Thou knowest, Lord' (Z.58c) for the funeral of Queen Mary, along with his instrumental March and Canzona (Z.860).
Orlando Gibbons set I am the resurrection as a 5-part motet.
The Priest and Clerks, meeting the corpse at the entrance of the churchyard, and going before it, either into the church or towards the grave, shall sing:
I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. (St. John 11:25-26)
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God, whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27)
We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (1 Tim 6:7, Job 1:21)
When they come to the Grave, while the Corpse is made ready to be laid into the earth, the Priest and Clerks shall sing:
Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. (Job 14:1-2)
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased? Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death. Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
Then shall be sung:
I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write, From henceforth blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: even so saith the Spirit: for they rest from their labours. (Revelation 14:13)