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Tallis & Byrd: Masses for Uncertain Times

The composers of the three mass settings presented here share a common thread apart, of course, from their English heritage: their artistic sensibilities, not to mention their devotional lives, were undoubtedly fashioned by Roman Catholic traditions and training. Despite the ravages of war and fierce tribal politics of the day, Catholicism flourished in 15th-century England. But the dawn of the 16th century brought with it new and very real dangers—a ruling family wracked by scandal, political volatility, and a religious reformation that would threaten the foundations of religious life. In spite of the challenges and perils posed by the temporal realities of their day, John Plummer, Thomas Tallis, and William Byrd each offer profound expressions of the same faith: Plummer’s effort is eccentric, experimental, and extroverted, Tallis’s is reserved and demure, and Byrd’s is private and sensual.

While Plummer didn’t live to see the development of the European protestant reformation, his death roughly coincided with the ascension of the House of Tudor, a dynasty that would eventually dismantle, resurrect and forever change cherished religious traditions. Tallis, on the other hand, witnessed the demolition of religious institutions. At a time when houses of worship and education were ransacked for their stored wealth by zealous politicians, Tallis was ever the musical pragmatist, responding to the fiendish and fickle fluctuations of liturgical necessity with seemingly great ease. William Byrd walked the thin line between perception and persecution as a staunch follower of the old faith.

Thomas Tallis and William Byrd are rightly acknowledged as the foremost composers of the high Renaissance as expressed in Tudor England. So what sets apart these two geniuses of the polyphonic art? It is very clear that their talents were acknowledged in their own day by their Queen and patron Elizabeth I, who granted them exclusive rights to print music and music paper in her realm. They, in turn, presented her with the dedication of the Cantiones Sacrae in 1575, a collection of 34 Latin motets (17 per composer) honoring the seventeenth year of the great monarch’s long reign.

For Byrd, his genius lies in the ability to bear his heart and soul with the pen and ink. On the page, the masses for Three, Four, and Five voices seem quite academic. Simple in construction and traditional in form, they adhere to the well-established rules and practices of the previous 150 years of polyphonic composition. Despite their very practical purpose to be sung in private homes and hidden chapels for recusant Catholics, Byrd eloquently sets sacred texts that are so obviously dear to him as a devout Roman Catholic himself in a Protestant country where dissidents were dealt with by violent means. Only the direct patronage of the Queen herself saved Byrd’s head. Despite the very real threat of prosecution simply for attending mass, much less writing music to accompany one, Byrd misses no opportunity or nuance to fully bring out the personal meaning of the text. The Kyrie eleison pulses with an eager forward nature in a plea for mercy, the Gloria in excelsis Deo is ever exuberant throughout, the Sanctus perfectly exemplifies the hymn of a choir of angels at the presence of the sacrament, and the Agnus Dei makes a final commitment to mercy and a plea for peace, religious peace. Of particular note is the setting of the words of the Credo—the Creed—the Statement of Faith. At the words “Et in unum Sanctam Catholicam” (I believe in one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church), the texture is immediately homophonic and in complete unification of musical and theological purpose.

John Plummer is the relatively unknown precursor to these two musical giants. Like his well known contemporary John Dunstable, Plummer’s music survived the ransacking of libraries almost exclusively in sources from the European continent. What can be known of the man can only be determined by his voice found on the page. The isorhythmic nature of 14th- and 15th-century polyphony is still very much present here with a look forward to the Mannerist elegance of the later Renaissance. Though using only three single voices and, at that, rarely all three at once, Plummer’s voice is a juxtaposition of youthful eccentricity and mature grace, placing each line in the absolute extremes of the isolated vocal tessituras.

In the case of Thomas Tallis, it is his clear ability to adapt to the extremities of the political upheaval and, as a result, the religious changes serving four monarchs which sets him apart. Tallis is the master of the musical line and vocal phrase. Regardless of the text he sets, he sets it in a beautifully crafted hierarchy of harmony and discord. Though the linear and soft-edged Latin language was abbreviated by the sharp corners of the English language used in the budding Anglican church, the balanced structure of his composition is not shaken. Byrd, as a young chorister in the Chapel Royal, may well have known Tallis’ Mass for Four Voices and its elegant brevity. In the Sanctus especially, Tallis hearkens back to his younger days writing for the Sarum rites of the Catholic mass by spending nearly twice the duration of the syllabic Gloria or Credo movements in barely a third the length of the text. The Agnus Dei could not be more different from Byrd’s passionate setting with the final “Dona nobis pacem” a virtual afterthought.

Curiously, Tallis’ Credo omits a significant portion of text, as does the early mass by John Plummer. Plummer’s omissions seem rather arbitrary except that the ommitted portions of the Gloria and Credo are mirrored themes presented in the polyphonic troped Kyrie Omnipotens Pater. He is thus perhaps using an early sense of conservatism in his mass setting. The editor of our performing edition, Nick Sandon, suggests that “during a sung (i.e. a Solemn) mass the entire text of every item was meant to be read by the celebrant and ministers, so the singing of an incomplete text might not have been considered the solecism that it now appears.”

For Tallis’s Mass, no Kyrie is given as either it was omitted in the ever changing liturgical practices of the Chapel Royal or perhaps a few bastions remained using the old troped plainsong Kyrie appropriate for the feast day. In fact, the use of troped Kyries in either plainchant or polyphony are a distinctly English tradition. Regardless, we have been fortunate to collaborate again with Andrew Smith (b. 1970) whose inwardly digested knowledge of chant and liturgy marry perfectly in his setting of the Cunctipotens genitor Deus as an introduction to the Tallis mass. And as a final burst of delight, we present Gabriel Jackson’s (b. 1962) gift of Ite missa est—the mass’s dismissal. Jackson’s passion for the rhythmic polyphony of the Eton Choirbook has the sugared relish of his other musical loves—soul and R&B music of the 70s and 80s. In his own words: “A lot of my work is deliberately referential (in large or small ways) o specific models, particular composers, individual pieces and sometimes just hints an individual event in an existing piece; My chord voicings, structural devices like “call and response”, unfolding melodies over ostinato textures, the special intensity of concerted voices in close position and, above all, a sense of ecstatic communion, all originate in Afro-American music.” Above all, each of these composers, both ancient and modern, began their musical careers as singers. This music is wonderful to sing!