Building A Library: First Choice
BBC Radio 3 - CD Review
Magnificat's tribute to Thomas Tallis, the Father of English Church Music, offers music from four to forty singers ranging from the transcendent simplicity of Te lucis ante terminum to the incomparable tour-de-force Spem in alium for forty voices. The latter is a simply spectacular performance which earned a Gramophone 'Editor's Choice' plaudit:‘This is quite the best performance of Tallis's 40-part Spem in alium that I have heard'. Magnificat's clear melodic lines, rich vocal textures and sense of spaciousness all contribute to create a well-nigh perfect performance of this mesmerising Renaissance polyphony.
Building A Library First Choice: ‘...the vocal texture is rich but clear and the singers bring out the expressive qualities of the music.' BBC Radio 3, CD Review
‘A thick and rich sound which creates a vivid performance.' Independent on Sunday
‘An outstanding performance of Thomas Tallis's Spem in alium provides a powerful cornerstone for a superbly conceived and executed programme.' Gramophone
‘The sound these singers make is exquisite.' The Sunday Times
‘The singers of Magnificat have a rich, creamy sound, well blended but with each voice part's individuality also fully audible.' International Record Review
Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium
'In Queene Elizabeths time there was a songe sent into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned the name to be called the Apices of the world) which beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of ______ bearing a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our English men could sett as good a songe, & Tallice beinge very skillfull was felt to try whether he would undertake the Matter, which he did and mad[e] one of 40 p[ar]ts which was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house which so farre surpassed the other th[a]t the Duke hearinge of the songe tooke his chayne of gold from of his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke & gave yt him.' Anon.
So goes the story of the composition of Spem in alium, Tallis's great motet for 40 voices, recorded here, in the round, by Magnificat.
Although Thomas Tallis is often (rightly) described as the father of English church music - that is, music to English texts, written for the Reformed rite - his early career of course took place in Catholic establishments, and he never lost his taste for Latin music, as the contents of this disc demonstrate very clearly. Although there are good grounds for thinking that the four-part mass may date from the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (1553 - 1558), when the Catholic rite was revived, the Lamentations and the other motets are certainly later, and therefore for different performance circumstances. Indeed, it is quite likely that Tallis did not merely have a taste for Latin music, but that he also had recusant sympathies (recusants were Catholics who refused to attend church in Elizabethan England).
He spent his early career at Dover Priory (c.1532, when he would have been in his late twenties), St Mary-at-Hill, London (1537-8) and Waltham Abbey, Essex (1538). Upon its dissolution he moved (c.1541) to the reformed Canterbury Cathedral where he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (1543); these were particularly uncertain times for musicians. He was therefore already at the Chapel by the time of King Edward VI (1547) when there was an urgent need for music set to English texts for the Edwardine reformed service. Like his contemporaries, Tallis stayed on during the reign of Queen Mary I when there was a renewed need for Latin music (not least to replace material which had been thrown away or wantonly destroyed during the reign of King Edward VI) and then again into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558), when the Reformed rite was established once more (1559). Although there were some examples of Catholic Gentlemen of the Chapel leaving during this time, it seems to have been possible at least to retain Catholic sympathies without too much trouble, as long as one was fairly discreet about it and it is clear that Tallis was one member of her Chapel who did this.
Tallis' life and music show a very clear involvement with the Catholic party which, incidentally, was remarkably ubiquitous during Queen Elizabeth I's reign, with very large numbers of the nobility retaining their old religious affiliation. At its earliest, this can be seen in Tallis' links with the Ropers, a strongly recusant Kentish family who were among his patrons. Anthony Roper, a grandson of Sir Thomas More (More's daughter married William Roper, who was also More's biographer), was one of Tallis' patrons as well as a sympathetic Catholic. Tallis' role as a protector of his pupil William Byrd should not be underplayed, for it was through the good offices of the Roper family that Byrd found somewhere to live in the 1580s, when he acquired a house from Anthony Roper in Harlington near to one of his main patrons, Lord Paget. Since William Byrd's son Christopher married Catherine Moore or More, a great-granddaughter of Sir Thomas More, this Roper link played a major part in Byrd's life. It seems to have been through Tallis' infl uence that Byrd gained access to this circle, thus allowing Byrd's much more open recusancy to find its expression.
Having explained Tallis' recusant links, we have less difficulty in explaining the Latin music he wrote after 1560, when there could have been little if any opportunity for performance as part of the English liturgy. Wherever else her religious and political sympathies (or duties) lay, Queen Elizabeth I clearly enjoyed and supported the music of both Byrd and Tallis; in 1575, Queen Elizabeth I issued letters-patent, granting them an exclusive license to print and publish music. Later that year, they jointly issued the first collection of Latin motets ever printed in England, the Cantiones quae ab argumento Sacrae vocantur. Each composer included seventeen motets (no doubt a tribute to the seventeenth year of Queen Elizabeth I's reign). The motets on this recording all come from this publication.
The Compline Hymn Te lucis ante terminum is one of two settings by Tallis, both identical in structure (verse one, chant; verse two, simple five-part polyphony; verse three, chant). This is the setting based on the Festal Tone, with a middle verse slightly more elaborate in rhythm and texture. O salutaris hostia and Salvator mundi are freely composed, not based on chant or other material. Both are five-part antiphons, the former for Corpus Christi, the latter for The Exaltation of the Cross and both illustrate Tallis' ability to create sustained works from short, simple melodic units. The Miserere nostri is a rather different matter, for its ethereal effect disguises a complex and skilful piece of counterpoint. The seven voices contain two canons, one fairly obvious between the top two voices, but another, much more elaborate, within four of the remaining voices. The discantus part is sung by the contratenor in double augmentation (notes four times as long), by the first bassus part in triple augmentation (notes eight times as long) and by the second bassus in augmentation (notes twice as long).
The Lamentations and Spem in alium also fall neatly into the recusant fold; the Lamentations contain the coded references familiar from motets by Byrd and directed towards recusant circles, while Spem in alium likely has a Catholic motivation together with a coded reference of a different kind.
Tallis' forty-part work is of course most unusual; there is nothing else in the English repertoire quite like it. The most likely explanation put forward for its composition is that it was written in 1571 in honour of the Duke of Norfolk (a staunch Catholic, executed in 1572). The number of parts presumably refers to years in the wilderness after which the true faith would be restored. The allusion to the restoration of the true (Catholic) faith is even more clear in the final admonition of the Lamentations - ‘Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum' (Jerusalem, turn again unto the Lord thy God) - it being a simple and well-understood conceit to compare England with Jerusalem. However, Tallis is not above introducing another conceit of his own, when he chooses a text containing a phrase such as ‘Respice humilitatem meam' (Look upon my humility) and then sets it for forty parts. Tallis lays out his forty parts as eight five-part choirs, the main features which may be audible are an initial passage of 44 beats during which choirs one to four enter, followed by 24 beats covering the introduction of choirs five to eight, an antiphonal passage of 10 beats and then 10 beats for the full choirs (24 + 10 + 10 = 44 balancing the initial 44). This is followed by 22 beats for ‘ne irasceris', during which the stereophonic effect moves back, with choirs eight to five. So at the beginning we have 44, 44, 22; moving to the very end, the extremely dramatic semibreve rest in the middle of the final passage of text (‘respice humilitatem') provides a final passage of 1 + 32 = 33. There is always much more to a piece of Tudor polyphony that meets the ear!
The preservation of the four-part Mass is another illustration of the infl uence of highly-placed recusants, in this case the man who commissioned the manuscript which is the only source for this work, Dr Roger Gifford. He was a student and later Fellow at Christ Church and Merton College, Oxford and later (in the 1580s) Physician-in-ordinary to Queen Elizabeth I and it seems likely that in the 1570s was responsible for the compilation of a collection of the music that he had heard in Oxford chapels during the reign of Mary Tudor.
The Mass is composed for four voices, in a rather restrained manner, and it has suffered neglect in comparison with Byrd's four-part Mass. Tallis' Mass is beautifully crafted, contains great variety and deserves to be more widely known. It is broadly homophonic in style, though we hear the technique Tallis has already perfected in his English-texted music, where one voice leads and the others follow, thus giving a contrapuntal effect very economically and at other times breaking into brief and simple contrapuntal entries. This one-voice-leading technique is also found, at ‘Ieurusalem convertere' in the Lamentations, where its coming-of-age is established by the powerful effect it conveys through the use of repeated notes.
An understanding of the likely circumstances of performance helps us to address the question of scoring these works. The Mass, being a liturgical work, would normally have been performed in its liturgical choral context, transposed up a minor third However, when Dr Gifford got out his books in the 1570s and 1580s, who knows what forces might have performed it? This question arises more sharply with the Lamentations, which are actually two independent works but which were associated with each other from an early date (strangely, they are often copied in the wrong order in manuscripts, with ‘Incipit lamentatio' after ‘De lamentatione'). They were only ever conceived for recusant performance and show the typical terraced scoring (each part a little higher/lower than the next) seen also in Byrd, for example, which is in contrast to the scoring for specifi c voices seen in Tallis' and Sheppard's liturgical music.
Tallis composed during the reigns of four English monarchs - Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53), Mary Tudor (1553-8) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603) - all of whom had signifi cantly different tastes, both religious and musical. Tallis seems to have responded to each of them with equal ease, with music ranging from the fl orid early antiphons to simple, syllabic settings. From four to forty voices, this collection of works reveals the remarkably broad compass of Tallis' Latin settings.
© Roger Bray & Philip Cave, 2000