Thomas Tallis and the Transformation of the English Liturgy
Henry’s Reign (1509–1547)
Mater Christi à 5 John Taverner (ca. 1490–1545)
Sancte Deus à 4 Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–1585)
Nunc Dimittis à 5 Tallis
Edward’s Reign (1547–1553)
If ye love me à 4 Tallis
Benedictus à 4 Tallis
Mary’s Reign (1553–1558)
Missa Puer natus est à 7 – Sanctus & Benedictus Tallis
Elizabeth’s Reign (1558–1603)
I call and cry Tallis
O nata lux Tallis
Derelinquit impius à 5 Tallis
Blessed are those that be undefiled à 5 Tallis
O magnum misterium William Byrd (ca. 1540–1623)
Magnificat à 8 from the Third Service Byrd
James’s Reign (1603–1625)
O clap your hands à 8 Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625)
Shannon Canavin & Brenna Wells, soprano
Mary Gerbi & Martin Near, alto
Jason McStoots & Steven Soph, tenor
Cameron Beauchamp & Brian Church, bass
Eric Rice, music director
Friday, January 23, 2009 at 8pm
First Lutheran Church of Boston, 299 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA
Saturday, January 24 at 7:30pm
Christ Church Andover, 33 Central Street, Andover, MA
Sunday, January 25 at 3pm
Parish of the Good Shepherd of Waban, 1671 Beacon Street, Waban, MA
Notes on the Program
It is a quirk of history that English sacred music remains one of the most unbroken of all European musical traditions. The political climate of sixteenth-century England, in which the state religion changed from Catholicism to Protestantism and back before finally stabilizing as the Anglican Church, would seem an unlikely environment for the foundation of venerable musical institutions and customs. Yet there are church choirs in Britain that were established well before 1534, when Henry VIII renounced Catholicism, and their function and performing forces have changed little from the sixteenth century to the present day. The anthems of Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–1585) have probably always been staples of the repertoire of these ensembles, and the composer’s Latin-texted works (and those of his younger and equally noteworthy colleague, William Byrd) began to receive regular performances once they were again brought to light in the early twentieth century. Few composers in the history of Western music before 1750 have enjoyed such consistent attention. (Handel is another example, due almost entirely to the success of his Messiah, an oratorio that has been performed unfailingly every year from its premiere in 1742 to the present.) That a portion of Tallis’ output has been in continuous or nearly continuous use is testament enough to his compositional artistry; that he was able to produce music of such quality during the reigns of four different monarchs, adapting his compositional approaches to suit doctrinal and liturgical changes along the way, is even more remarkable. Despite changing compositional demands and additional influences from the European continent, one hears in his music qualities peculiar to the English style of the period: on the one hand, a predilection for fresh and often bright-sounding harmonies, employing pitches outside of the standard modal framework; on the other, striking, somber dissonances, often resulting from independently conceived vocal lines that clash harmonically. The unusual continuity of the English choral tradition has preserved some of these features in later English music. To name but two examples, harmonic clashes of the kind Tallis cultivated are present in the music of Henry Purcell (1659–1695), and the false harmonic relations suggested by such clashes are audible in compositions by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), who paid homage to his Renaissance counterpart in his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis of 1910.
Our program surveys music from throughout the composer’s career and beyond, demonstrating the wide range of approaches to liturgical composition during the reigns of five monarchs: Henry VIII (r. 1509 – 46), Edward VI (r. 1547–1553), Mary I (r. 1553–1558), Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603), and James I (r. 1603–1625). Tallis’ association with the Chapel Royal, the group of clerics and musicians responsible for the private devotions of the English court, probably began in 1543. It concluded a chain of relatively short stints in the employ of collegiate and monastic churches, several of which dismissed Tallis as part of systematic restructuring or dissolution in the wake of Henry’s break with the Roman Church. That Tallis secured a post at the Chapel Royal and was able to retain it throughout the religious upheavals of the following half-century is strikingly ironic in light of his religious leanings: he was almost certainly a Catholic throughout his life, albeit a very pragmatic one. The style of his compositions changed dramatically with the needs of his patrons, but it also developed in its own right as Tallis was increasingly exposed to the humanistic ideas of his continental counterparts.
Henry’s Regin (1509–47)
Mater Christi (Taverner)
The English tradition in which Tallis initially worked was dominated by two genres: the votive antiphon—long, elaborate settings of devotional poems sung to the Virgin Mary at services in her honor—and settings of the mass ordinary, the musical portions of the mass sung at every Catholic service. Mater Christi, a votive antiphon by Tallis’ elder contemporary John Taverner (ca. 1490–1545), serves as an example of the former genre. Taverner’s career antedates Henry’s break with Catholicism and included a brief stint as the first choirmaster at Cardinal College (now Christ Church), Oxford, an institution that still supports one of the finest choirs in Britain. Mater Christi is characterized by elaborate counterpoint featuring frequent scoring contrasts, from duets to the full complement of five voices. Taverner disposed the voices (treble, mean, contratenor, tenor, and bass) in a distinctively English “spacing” that sometimes explores the extremes of a voice’s range. He frequently employs melismas (stretches of melody in which many notes are applied to one syllable of text), and alternates high and low voices in a call-and-response texture. However, in comparison with Tallis’ early votive antiphons, Mater Christi is modest, clocking in at around six and a half minutes; Tallis’ essays in the genre are more than ten.
Sancte Deus (Tallis)
King Henry’s 1534 Act of Supremacy, which officially severed England’s ties with the Roman Catholic Church, was initially an act of expediency that allowed him to divorce Catherine of Aragon as part of redoubled efforts to produce a male heir. Liturgical reforms quickly followed, however, and these were keenly felt in musical circles by the end of the decade. Reformers demanded intelligibility of texts and a less florid musical style, changes that accorded reasonably well with the concurrent text-oriented developments in continental music. Tallis’ four-part Sancte Deus is a succinct and intimate votive antiphon addressed to Jesus, and its short phrases, cadentially-orientated style and Christocentric text may show that Tallis’ music was affected by the winds of doctrinal change during the late 1530s. The short antiphon to Mary or Jesus became increasingly popular during the reign of Henry VIII and gradually supplanted the large antiphon; like other smaller-scale musical forms, both sacred and secular, it tended to absorb continental features such as imitation (in which an entering voice repeats, recognizably if not exactly, a bit of melody previously heard in another voice) readily.
Nunc dimittis (Tallis)
Tallis’ Latin-texted Nunc dimittis is musically related to a setting of the Magnificat, and the two works were clearly composed as a pair. They had long been thought to date from Elizabeth’s reign, though this has recently been called into question. In the Catholic rite, their texts were sung in entirely different services (the Magnificat is the Canticle of Mary, Luke 1:46-55, sung at Vespers; the Nunc dimittis is the Canticle of Simeon, Luke 2:29-32, sung at Compline), whereas in the Anglican rite they were sung in close proximity to one another in the evensong service. The musical relationship supported the notion that both works were to be performed in the same service. Strengthening this supposition is a 1560 translation, made by one Walter Haddon with Elizabeth’s approval, of the newly-written Book of Common Prayer into Latin for use at colleges, universities, and in the royal court. A “Latinized” Anglican rite would explain both the use of a Latin text and the unusual pairing of the two canticles. Arguing against this is the musical style, which is very much like the thoroughly contrapuntal music of the pre-Reformation period, as well as the fact that recent examinations of music inventories at two important choral institutions reveal that English composers had begun to regard the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis as a pair well before the Reformation. The settings alternate plainchant and polyphony for successive verses, and we have employed the Nunc dimittis chant from the Sarum rite, the dialect of plainchant associated with pre-Reformation England. Throughout the polyphony, bright harmonies are contrasted with occasional dissonant cross-relations (moments in which voice parts disagree on whether a pitch is natural, flat, or sharp), a common feature in Tallis’ works.
Edward’s Reign (1547–1553)
If ye love me and Benedictus (Tallis)
In 1547, when Tallis was likely in his early forties and well established at the Chapel Royal, Henry VIII died, having succeeded in producing a male heir only nine years before. Edward VI was thus in no position to temper the ecclesiastical reforms that were well underway, and the young ruler was intensely devoted to Protestantism in any case. The reforms proceeded more vigorously than before, reaching fruition with the abolishment of the centuries-old Latin liturgy and the adoption of a new, austere English rite in its place. If ye love me is a succinct illustration of a new genre, the anthem; the Benedictus that follows demonstrates how vestiges of the Latin rite, in this case the Benedictus Dominus or Canticle of Zachary (Luke 1:68-79), which was recited at Lauds, were adapted to the new rite. In these works, Tallis eschews stark homophony on the one hand and dense, complex counterpoint on the other, creating a musical fabric that alternates homophonic passages with imitative ones. Tallis employs imitation sparingly, ensuring that the English text can be understood, but rhythmic and imitative play among the voices are never entirely absent. The final section of both of these anthems is repeated, producing a form that Tallis helped to standardize. Indeed, these works are fine examples of Tallis’ nearly single-handed crystallization of the English anthem as a genre. Both works are scored relatively low, reflecting the fact that boys were often not in attendance at the many choir schools in England generally and at the Chapel Royal in particular. We have transposed the Benedictus up a fourth from its original scoring.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath lifted up an horn of salvation to us in the house of his servant David. As he spake by the mouth of his holy Prophets, which hath been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hands of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; to perform the oath which he sware to our father Abraham, that he would give us; that we, being de livered out of the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life. And the child shalt be called the prophet of the most high: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation unto his people for the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, and is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Mary’s Reign (1553–1558)
1553 saw Edward succumb to tuberculosis at the age of sixteen, and his older half-sister Mary Tudor acceded to the throne after a brief struggle for power with Protestant courtiers. Mary had never abandoned the Catholicism of her youth, and she sought immediately to reestablish the faith in England. For church musicians, this meant a return to the complex contrapuntal style of the pre-Reformation period and to the votive antiphon and mass as principal genres. Tallis’ mass from Mary’s reign, the seven-voice Missa Puer natus est nobis, is a tour de force of compositional techniques associated with continental Catholicism, yet it retains many of the characteristics of the pre-Reformation English festal mass. It was probably composed for Christmas celebrations at the royal court in 1554, when Mary’s recently acquired husband, Phillip II of Spain, was in attendance. The use of seven voices hints at Mary’s probable commission of the work, since seven is the symbolic number of the Virgin Mary, the Tudor queen’s namesake. (The Virgin is believed to have experienced seven joys during her life and seven sorrows at the Crucifixion.) The relatively low scoring of the mass has led scholars to surmise that the work was performed by the combined choirs of the English and Spanish royal chapels, since Phillip’s choir had no boys to sing the treble parts. (The piece is commonly transposed up today to accommodate modern choirs.) The mass employs the Gregorian introit melody for Christmas, Puer natus est nobis, as a cantus firmus (a melody performed in long note-values around which the other voices sing counterpoint), which is heard in the tenor. Puer natus makes a rather awkward cantus firmus—it is a relatively long chant but contains many short, inconclusive phrases—and scholars have concluded that Mary rather than Tallis must have chosen it. The symbolism of its text, “A boy is born to us, and a son is given to us whose government will be on his shoulders,” may have pertained to more than Christmas in this context, since Mary was believed to have been expecting an heir. The Sanctus heard on our program repeats portions of the cantus firmus without completing the entire chant. Nonetheless, if the work was indeed Mary’s commission, Tallis rose to the challenge beautifully. The music employs the thick texture and sonorous harmonies of the composer’s youth, but with more coherent imitation and formal planning.
Elizabeth’s Reign (1558–1603)
I call and cry to thee (Tallis)
Mary’s marriage to Phillip II did not succeed in producing a male heir, so that when the Catholic queen succumbed to cancer in 1558, it was her half-sister Elizabeth who assumed the throne. Though Catholicism was abolished once again, Elizabeth’s Protestantism was of a more pragmatic sort than Edward’s, and the music from her reign is not devoid of imitative polyphony or of Latin, though initially both were employed sparingly. I call and cry to thee may have been composed in the 1560s; it was first conceived as an instrumental fantasia and then radically revised for publication with a Latin text, O sacrum convivium, in 1575. The English-texted version may also date from the mid-1570s; both texts fit equally well to the music, causing scholars to disagree about which represents Tallis’ intentions. Since it was published with a Latin text in 1575, perhaps this version should take precedence; on the other hand, the composer may have authorized the English version since it dates from his own lifetime. It is a superbly crafted motet, with pervading imitation and climactic sequential repetition.
O nata lux (Tallis)
O nata lux is a combination of the homophonic texture and harmony of the mature Edwardian anthem style with a Latin text. Tallis sets the rhythm of the melodic lines to match an accent pattern in the Latin poem in which every fourth syllable is long, lending the piece a slight lilt. This is juxtaposed, however, with the dark harmonies and cross relations that give the work a particularly solemn character.
Derelinquit impius (Tallis)
Imitative psalm-motets, particularly those in a mostly syllabic style (in which each syllable is assigned a single note) were deemed appropriate for use in the Chapel Royal during Elizabeth’s reign, and Tallis probably composed Derelinquit impius for services there. The work is a setting of psalm 138 (137 in the Vulgate numbering), which is traditionally sung in office services for the first Sunday in Lent. Scholars have learned to read these sorts of Lenten settings, with their exhortations to repent, as directed at Protestant England on behalf of the Catholic composer and his fellow recusants. Indeed, the music of Tallis’ famous Lamentations of Jeremiah is so soulful and impassioned that it is commonly cited as evidence of his Catholicism. Scholarship of the last thirty years has uncovered more substantive proof that the composer’s Catholic patrons heard such works as admonitions to their Protestant countrymen. The music of Derelinquit impius is reflective and somewhat restrained, with the rhetoric of the text emerging despite the imitative texture. This is because, in contrast to some of his earlier imitative works, Tallis allows textual and musical phrases to correspond, giving each new phrase of text a new bit of melody that then serves as the subject of imitation. At “quia benigna et misericors est” (“because he is kind and merciful”), Tallis leads with the soprano on the first word, with the rest of the choir initially following in homophony; the soprano then begins an imitative passage in which the melody contains the distinctive leap of a seventh on the word “misericors” that is heard in nearly all of the voices in succession.
Blessed are those that be undefiled (Tallis)
The rush to create a new musical liturgy sometimes produced pieces that fell somewhat outside the reformers’ wishes: Blessed are those that be undefiled (a setting of an excerpt from Psalm 119) is a thoroughly contrapuntal anthem that does not so much as hint at strict Edwardian or Elizabethan homophony until the concluding doxology (“Glory be to the Father...”). The five voices are disposed with the same spacing as Taverner’s Mater Christi, and the work’s texture contrasts choirs of high and low voices, recalling the call and response singing of monastic psalmody. The combination of a thoroughgoing contrapuntal texture of this sort with an English text suggests that the work may initially have set a Latin text, though scholars disagree as to which language was originally intended. The sonorous doxology, which begins with the first real homophony of the piece, may also have been also a later addition to the work, yet the imitation that sets “and ever shall be” seems in accordance with the overall texture.
O magnum mysterium (Byrd)
Tallis continued to engage in new compositional techniques until his death, and the experimental tendency and quality of English music continued unabated. William Byrd (ca. 1540–1623), Tallis’ student and friend, remarked in a musical eulogy for his teacher that “Tallis is dead, and music dies,” though many of the elder composer’s techniques were by then part of the English musical idiom and lived on for more than a half-century. Byrd’s O magnum misterium may be regarded as an example of a somewhat different tradition: Catholicism and its music persisted in England, and Byrd was an ardent of both. O magnum misterium bears the text of a Matins responsory for Christmas Day, a popular text for polyphonic settings. The motet follows the form (ABCB) of the plainchant responsory exactly.
Magnificat from the Third Service (Byrd)
The term “service” was not in common use as a reference to a religious ritual before the Reformation, in part because the mass and the canonical hours of the Divine Office were simply called by their proper names (Vespers, Compline, Matins, Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, and None, services that were celebrated at roughly three-hour intervals in the monastic tradition). After the adoption of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, Matins and Lauds were conflated into the service of English Matins, and Vespers and Compline were similarly combined into Evensong; the Latin mass became the Communion Service, with substantial revisions to the order of the translated mass texts; and the Mass for the Dead was transformed into the English Burial Service. Passages of text from any of these categories could be set to music as a service, so that the genre encompasses a wide range of texts. A feature common to all services is the use of so-called ordinary text—text not specific to any occasion on the church calendar—though occasionally texts proper to a specific feast day may be included as well. In this, the genre is generally distinguished from the Anthem, which bears a text that is usually pertinent to a particular day. Byrd’s Third Service is relatively modest compared to his other settings in the genre, employing the standard English choral arrangement: two choirs, known as Decani and Cantoris (a reference to the south and north sides of the choir, led by the Dean and Cantor, respectively), of five voices each: mean (here sung by sopranos), two countertenors (altos), tenor, and bass. The tradition of separating choirs was widespread where plainchant was concerned, because many of the texts in the office (psalms, canticles, and certain hymns) were sung in call and response fashion. Cathedrals and collegiate churches usually have two sets of choir stalls on either side of the choir for this purpose. In England, this tradition was carried over to polyphony to a greater degree than on the continent, where ensembles clustered in the center of the choir rather than remaining in the choir stalls to sing polyphony. Because of this, simple service settings tended to alternate phrases of homorhythmic singing between the two choirs, as here. Since we have eight singers rather than the ten the piece actually requires, we have placed the altos in the middle of the choir for the Magnificat, which allows them to sing with each choir in turn. One hears, then, the alternation of the two choirs and occasional phrases in which both choirs sing together. Despite fairly strict homophony throughout, this allows Byrd substantial variations of texture and color.
O clap your hands (Gibbons)
The polychoral idiom that Byrd’s service settings exemplify also occurred on the continent, and the idioms of each tradition gradually converged. The setting for eight voices of O clap your hands by Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), who served in the Chapel Royal as both Tallis and Byrd had, possesses motivic clarity, polyphonic richness, textural interchange, and rhythmic energy more typical of an Italian canzona or polychoral motet than an English Anthem. Despite this, its harmony continues to reflect the English preoccupation with cross-relations, demonstrating its lineage to Tallis and pre-Reformation counterpoint. Though the transformation of the liturgy and its music was complete, the influence of the man who so beautifully adapted his compositional approach throughout the vicissitudes of the Reformation is still audible.
© 2009 Eric Rice