This genre originated in the early 16th century from a six-voice mass composed before 1530 by John Taverner on the plainchant Gloria Tibi Trinitas. In the Benedictus section of this mass, the Latin phrase "in nomine Domini" was sung in a reduced, four-part counterpoint, with the plainchant melody in the mean (alto part). At a time when there was little published music for viol consorts, this attractive passage became popular as a short instrumental piece. Over the next 150 years, English composers worked this melody into "In Nomine" pieces of ever greater stylistic range.
In Nomines are typically consort pieces for four or five instruments, especially consorts of viols. One instrument plays the theme through as a cantus firmus with each note lasting one or even two measures; usually this is the second part from the top. The other parts play more complex lines, often in imitative counterpoint. Usually they take up several new motifs in turn, using each one as a point of imitation. However, there are In Nomines composed for solo or duo keyboard instruments and even one for the lute: a fantasy titled Farewell by John Dowland (Edwards 2001).
Examples of the genre include compositions by Christopher Tye (the most prolific composer of In Nomines, with 24 surviving settings), Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, William Lawes, and Henry Purcell, among many others. They can vary in mood from melancholy to serene, exultant, or even playful or hectic (as in Tye's In Nomine "Crye," in which the viols seem to imitate the call of a street hawker).
Concert performance of the In Nomine lapsed in the eighteenth century but revived in the late twentieth century.