The English Renaissance: Music of Tallis, Byrd, Peerson & Tomkins
Verily, verily, I say unto you Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585)
O nata lux Tallis
Come, help, O God William Byrd (1543-1623)
Terra tremuit Byrd
Salve intemerata virgo Tallis
O Lord, how manifold are thy works Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656)
A new commandment Tallis
O let me at thy footstool fall Martin Peerson (1571/3-1651)
Laboravi in gemitu meo Peerson
Quomodo cantibimus Byrd
Ave verum corpus Byrd
I call and cry to thee Tallis
Lord ever bridle my desires Peerson
O rex gloriæ Peerson
Arise, O Lord, and have mercy Tomkins
Arise, Lord, into thy rest Byrd
O Lord, rebuke me not Tomkins
O God, that no time does despise Peerson
O sing unto the Lord a new song Tomkins
Shannon Canavin & Eunsun Song, soprano
Thea Lobo & Martin Near, alto
Jason McStoots & Eric Rice, tenor
Richard Giarusso & Paul Guttry, bass
Friday, February 6 at 8 PM
First Lutheran Church of Boston, 299 Berkeley Street
Sunday, February 8 at 3 PM
Cochran Chapel, Phillips Academy Andover
Notes on the Program
In 1534, Henry VIII issued the Act of Supremacy establishing himself as the head of the Church of England and allowing him to divorce Catherine of Aragon as he sought to achieve a male heir to the thrown. From this exploitation of power there followed almost a century of turmoil as the official faith changed from Catholic to Protestant and back again. This had a particular impact on composers of the time, who not only had to endure the threat of persecution as the religious pendulum swung, but whose livelihoods depended on keeping up with the changing liturgical and doctrinal demands. As composers were charged with composing for the vernacular rite instead of the Latin, new genres and styles developed and the period would eventually be looked upon as one of the most fruitful musical eras in English history.
Thomas Tallis was probably born in Kent during the first decade of the sixteenth century. His first post appears to have been as organist at the Benedictine priory of Dover in 1530-31. He is next found at St. Mary-at-Hill, a parish noted for its music, and from there he moved to Waltham Abbey in Essex in 1538 as a senior member of its extensive musical foundation. However, that assignment proved short-lived, as in 1540 the Abbey was the last of the monastic foundations to be dissolved under the Reformation. Tallis then returned to Canterbury Cathedral in East Kent, which was being re-founded as a secular establishment with an expanded choir. In 1543 (or perhaps earlier), Tallis became a member of the famed Chapel Royal, where he remained until his death.
Tallis survived the various changes in political and religious leadership due to his pragmatism and flexibility. While there is today some ambiguity over his true religious convictions, a case can convincingly be made for his devotion to Catholicism, through his strong friendship with William Byrd and apparent relationship with Anthony Ruper (grandson of Catholic Thomas Moore), and through the heartfelt nature of his late works, most notably the Lamentations.
Tallis’s music changed markedly over time. The votive antiphon Salve intemerata is found in the Eton Choirbook, the leading source of late fifteenth-century English music, and was probably composed in the 1530s. This form was enthusiastically cultivated in Pre-Reformation England but later strongly criticized. Salve follows the form’s traditional plan of two parts of about equal length, the first of which is in triple meter and the second of which is in duple, and features frequent scoring contrasts from duets to the full complement of five voices. The long melismatic passages and use of imitation as a decorative device rather than a structural one is indicative of the older musical fashion. I call and cry to thee, also found in contrafactum as O sacrum convivium (although there is still doubt as to which version was penned first), demonstrates Tallis’s use of structural imitation: the textual phrases are given their own musical motives which are introduced at varying intervals by each voice. Due to the influence of Cranmer and other reformers who demanded audibility in word-setting and greater simplicity of musical style, as demonstrated in the Latin motet O nata lux and Verily, verily, an English anthem set almost completely homophonically.
William Byrd came from a family of gentlemen and was probably brought up in the Chapel Royal, where he was a student of Tallis and later became his assistant. He began composing as a teenager and in 1563 became organist and choirmaster at Lincoln Cathedral, from which he was suspended in 1569 after a complaint about his “popish” and longwinded organ interludes. Byrd was sworn in as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 following the death of Robert Parsons and became joint organist with Tallis. He later moved to Essex–the first step in his journey away from London and the threat of recusancy–where he was supported by various patrons, including the Earl of Oxford, Paget, Petre, and Queen Elizabeth. In 1575, the Queen granted Tallis and Byrd a publishing patent to supplement their income. This first enterprise was a financial disaster, but Byrd would eventually use this privilege to catalogue his works and circulate his extensive body of carefully ordered music for the Proper and Ordinary of the Catholic mass. In 1584, Byrd was convicted of recusancy (refusal to attend services of the Church of England) and the family was excommunicated in 1605. There is little record of his life from this point forward aside from his entry in many legal disputes concerning leases. He died at Stondon Massey in 1623, described in the Chapel Royal ledger as “a Father of Musick.”
Byrd’s early output of is represented by a large number of styles, forms, and genres, including Latin motets, English anthems, consort songs, instrumental fantasias, the complete Ordinary and Propers as contained in the two volumes of Gradualia, and a wealth of music for the English virginal. There is a deliberate plan of experimentation and the influence of such composers as Tallis, Tye, White Parsons, and Ferrabosco is evident. Byrd was the first English composer to understand classical imitative polyphony, as in O salutaris hostia, which maintains its initial imitative polyphony throughout the piece. Byrd’s skillful combination of polyphony and homophony is perhaps what makes his vocal music most compelling. In the opening phrase of Arise, Lord, into thy rest, each voice picks up the rising motive introduced by the tenor, but the voices weave their way together at the word “rest” at the close of the phrase. From there to the end, the voices maintain a principally homophonic texture, often trading off in duets and trios. The expansive Quomodo cantabimus is composed in much the same way. This remarkable piece was in response to the Flemish composer Philippus de Monte’s 1583 Super flumina Babylonis, who served in the household chapel choir of Prince Philip of Spain from 1554 to 1555. Also a devout Catholic, de Monte urged Byrd to use his talents in a country that would appreciate him (“How shall we [i.e. you, the English] sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”). Byrd replied the following year with the dense and structurally strong Quomodo (“Remember the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem”, referring to the Edomites who joined the besieging army at the destruction of Jerusalem and were later denounced). Byrd’s faith remained strong and his musical contribution to the Catholic faith helped to ensure its future.
Little is known of the life of Martin Peerson. He was probably the son of Thomas and Margaret of March and may have come under the patronage of poet Fulke Greville. In 1604, he is known to have provided a piece to Ben Jonson’s masque. In 1606 he was convicted with Jonson of recusancy, so he mostly likely had Catholic sympathies. He later moved to Newington and published several books for virginal. He received a music degree from Oxford in 1613, meaning he had to subscribe to Protestantism. From 1623 to 1630 was at Westminster Abbey serving as sacrist and from 1624-5 was almoner and Master of Choristers at St. Paul’s Cathedral. When civil war broke out in 1642 and cathedral services ended, Peerson remained at St. Paul’s and is buried there at St. Faith’s Chapel.
Peerson’s compositions are very forward-looking in their use of chromaticism, demanding dramatic vocal lines, and novelty of style. An accomplished organist and virginalist, his music is infused with the extemporized style of that music; there are four surviving keyboard works which show a range of style. His English-texted works survive in two publications: Private Musicke (1620) containing secular songs for one or two voices and viols and virginal and Motets or Grave Chamber Music (1630), which represents the first instance of figured bass in an English published collection. Peerson’s five-voice Latin motets are preserved in part-book format, the cantus part of which is lost. The two motets performed on this program are reconstructed by Ross W. Duffin [blurb].
Thomas Tomkins was the son of organist and choirmaster of St. David’s Cathedral in ?? and studied with Byrd during his early years, as evidenced by the dedication of Tomkins’s madrigal Too much I once lamented (1622) to “my ancient, & much reverenced Master, William Byrd.” In 1596 he was appointed organist of Worcester Cathedral and in 1607 received his Bachelor of Music degree from Oxford. Tomkins was apparently quite influenced by Thomas Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597), which he studied and annotated carefully. Morley included one of Tomkins’s madrigals in the 1601 The Triumphs of Oriana, a publication praising the good works of Queen Elizabeth, indicating Tomkins’s stature as a composer and apparent affiliation with the court, and in 1621 Tomkins succeeded Edmund Hooper as organist of the Chapel Royal. In 1628 he was mistakenly named “Composer in Ordinary of the king’s musicke,” a post that was promised to Ferrabosco, who later rightly assumed the position. After the death of his wife in 1630, Tomkins spent less time at the Chapel Royal and returned increasingly to Worcester Cathedral. Although services at Worcester ceased in 1646, Tomkins resided there until 1654 when he went to live with his son, where he died in 1656.
Tomkins’s epitaph reads simply “Mr. Thomas Tomkins, organist of the King’s Chapel and of the Cathedral Church of Worcester,” indicating he was not considered a very important composer. However, considering the number and distinction of his contemporaries, as well as the suppression of the Anglican Church and its musicians, it is not difficult to understand his being overlooked. Tomkins’s contrapuntal technique was indeed exceptional, continuing Byrd’s achievements as no other composer was able. He also updated the traditional Anglican style by balancing modern madrigalian compositional techniques with older cathedral methods. His daring harmonic language also foreshadows the music of the next great English composer, Henry Purcell. Nearly all of Tomkins’s church music was published in the posthumous Musica Deo Sacra (1668), which contains over a hundred anthems and five services. His surviving vocal works are entirely in English, save one Latin motet which is also found in English contrafactum (or vice-versa). Tomkins also continued Byrd’s contribution to the virginal repertory, and as Stephen Tuttle stated, “the school of English virginalists came to a close” with the death of Tomkins. His three-voice anthems are somewhat awkward in their counterpoint, but contain strange idiosyncrasies that capture Tomkins’s daring style, as in the closing measures of O Lord, rebuke me not, which meanders harmonically until all three voices end in unison. The striking and elaborate O sing unto the Lord a new song seems at first to be merely an expansive and joyful devotion to God, but the “Alleluia” section is marked by constantly changing sonorities and driving syncopations that set it apart from most pieces of the time.
© Shannon Canavin