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40 Years of Renaissance Polyphony

      The contrapuntral complexity of Josquin’s Praeter rerum seriem and the simple directness of Tallis’s If ye love me or Hear the voice and prayer belong to two very different musical worlds. The first half of tonight’s concert explores Catholicism at its musical height. With the reforms of the Council of Trent still to come, composers across Europe revelled in increasingly intricate textures, recreating the artifice and intellectual play of Mannerist architecture in their musical structures – none more successfully than Josquin Desprez. After the interval we cross the Channel for music that tells the contrasting story of the English Reformation, of a new simplicity demanding “to each syllable a plain and simple note,” one charged with unspoken religious conflict and faith.

      Revered as the greatest composer of his day, Josquin’s unique polyphonic invention is showcased nowhere more vividly than in his Christmas motet Praeter rerum seriem. Probably dating from the end of his career, the work takes a joyous plainchant melody (with rhyming and strongly rhythmic text) and dissolves it down to its essence. The clue to this extraordinary two-part work is its text. Brooding on the mystery of the incarnation, the poet grasps after understanding, giving Josquin his cue. Just like the poet, he too “confronts us with a mystery” – this time a musical one that conceals the original melody in cantus firmus quotations so temporally distorted that they become unrecognisable. As the work progresses these become quicker and clearer, finally coalescing into familiarity as we reach the close and the rejoicing of its triple-time section, “By God’s grace, which orders all things so smoothly...”.

      Though often creating textural clarity through the antiphonal grouping of three upper and three lower voices, Josquin’s motet is unusually dense in construction. Imitation is tightly woven, nearing true canon at times, and creates a musical canvas as huge and abstract as its subject matter. It’s as though word-painting would be too literal, too trivial an approach to such subject matter.

      Just as the plainchant melody forms the starting point for Josquin’s motet, so the motet in turn forms the basis for Cipriano de Rore’s Parody Mass, the Missa Praeter rerum seriem. The cycle of influence between the two great Franco-Flemish composers is a fascinating one; de Rore was to succeed Josquin at the Este court in Ferrara, and his Mass feels both like a homage to his influential elder, and an extension and development of his innovative tradition.

      Each movement of the Mass emerges from the opening of Josquin’s motet. But as with the original, the cantus firmus material is slowed so dramatically as to lose much of its identity. De Rore’s seven voices are often deployed as a unit, throwing into relief the verse sections for reduced forces. The Benedictus, for example, becomes a glowing miniature for upper voices – a lighter, less substantial partner to the long lines and thick, sustained harmonies of the Sanctus, surely one of de Rore’s loveliest passages. Although best-known now as a composer of madrigals, what is striking here is the composer’s rhetorical restraint. There are no cheap effects or brash colours to mar the unfolding polyphonic purity of a work that reaches its solemn climax in a magisterial Agnus Dei, gilded by its two echoing treble lines.

      Michael Nyman’s new piece developed out of a performance of four of Bach’s Preludes from Book 1 where he slowed down, cut, or looped the material in order to draw out interior melodies and rhythms. He was looking for a context to “write” rather than just “play” these Preludes when his friend, the Mexican artist Lorena Camarena Osorno, asked him to write a short piece of music to accompany her film about the baroque poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

      Accodringly, Nyman took one of Sor Juana’s sonnets, “Este que ves, engaño colorido,” and set it with his “version” of the Bach D major Prelude as accompaniment. For the Tallis Scholars Nyman made an arrangement of this song where two women’s voices- with-text are accompanied by a transcription of the Prelude by voices-without-texts.

      A second song, a setting of another Sor Juana sonnet - “Mueran contigo Laura, pues modiste” - jumps between the F minor Prelude from Book 2 and the A major from Book 1 with which it shares harmonic, rhythmic and melodic musical material. Nyman intends to make the Sor Juana sonnets into a 10-song cycle, all as “decorations” of Bach Preludes.

      A Compline hymn for “low Sunday” – the first Sunday after Easter, Jesu salvator seculi exists in two directly comparable settings from the Tudor period by Tallis and John Sheppard. We hear only the latter tonight, but both are alternatim treatments, alternating verses of plainchant with polyphony that weaves itself around the familiar hymn- melody (heard throughout in the upper voices as a cantus firmus). Although perhaps less texturally varied that Tallis’s setting, and certainly less embellished melodically,

      Sheppard’s five-voice setting, which probably dates from Edward VI’s reign, is distinguished by its harmonic colouring. A master of chromaticism, Sheppard deploys his palette carefully, crafting a sense of growth and climax through his polyphonic variations, ending in a celebratory dance in the triple-time Gloria.

      Another product of Edward’s reign, John Sheppard’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer makes use of the five-part forces so characteristic of English composers during this period. It’s a distribution that allows for richness without obscuring the text in too much textural weight. Modal harmonies add interest and colour to a treatment whose translucent imitation and pulsing, dotted rhythms establish a single mood of affirmation and spiritual security.

      With a career spanning the reigns of Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, it is through Tallis’s music that we can trace most clearly the changing liturgical and stylistic conventions of the Tudor Monarchs. Both dating from Edward’s reign, the two four-part anthems If ye love me and Hear the voice and prayer are are exquisite miniatures and persuasive advocates for Anglicanism’s new simplicity.

      What counterpoint there is is carefully handled to foreground text. After a largely homophonic A section for If ye love me, Tallis creates a rocking, imitative web of sound at “e’en the spirit of truth” that grows out of a sequence of dovetailed entries at the start of the B section that rise up through the voices with expansive beauty. Also structured in ABB form, Hear the voice and prayer reserves imitative gestures to articulate the beginnings of section. The text comes from Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, and would have had particular resonance for the consecration of new English Church.

      Votive antiphon Salve intemerata is the largest-scale motet in today’s concert, and the earliest of the English compositions – not only in date but also style. The tradition of composing votive antiphons to the Virgin was abandoned in England under the Reformation, but to the young Tallis these works represented not only a spiritual gesture but also a technical challenge, encompassing some of the grandest works of his predecessors. Salve intemerata lacks the immediate melodic appeal of much Tallis, but surrender to the long contrapuntal lines and musical abstraction (the long text lacks much narrative or descriptive focus) and there’s much beauty to be found in this grandly spacious homage to an earlier age.