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Tallis Scholars: A Renaissance Christmas

Before contemporary life made the festive season simple, Christmas was a time to celebrate the unknown. A great feast with mystery at its core, in the dead of winter. It is this Christmas, one in which God comes to man by a virgin, through the unknowable working of the Holy Spirit, which was celebrated in music of great power and profundity by the greatest composers of the Renaissance.

Few come greater than Josquin des Prez, whose fame was considerable even in his own lifetime. His music, including the Christmas motet, Praeter rerum seriem, was to have a profound influence on later generations, in part thanks to timely dissemination of prints of his music. Like many compositions of its time, it is based around a long-note cantus firmus or plainchant melody. However, the opening of this motet sets the tone for something special, establishing a purposeful stride over which the notes of the plainchant move like tectonic plates. Only at the end does the pace relent in a closing invocation to the Virgin Mary.

Such pieces as these left their mark on ensuing generations. In particular, the music of Cipriano de Rore pays frequent homage to Josquin, whom Martin Luther had dubbed the “master of the notes.” De Rore based a setting of the mass on Praeter rerum seriem. This was a common way of paying tribute to an influential composer, but also a way to display one’s own compositional ingenuity in reworking the original. This is certainly the case in the Missa Praeter rerum seriem, which not only uses Josquin’s motet as a base, but adds a further voice-part, to which de Rore gives a para- liturgical text in praise of his employer - Hercules secundus, dux Ferrariae quartus vivit et vivet (‘Hercules II, fourth Duke of Ferrara lives and will live’). This sly bit of flattery earned the composer a lucrative benefice from his grateful patron.

We see another side to de Rore in the exuberant Christmas Day motet Hodie Christus natus est. Though still a sacred work, this piece owes a considerable debt to the composer’s experience in writing secular madrigals, in which drawing attention to individual words is of key importance. Here, a reference to the “singing of angels” prompts joyful flurries of melisma, as earth and heaven intertwine in the moment of Christ’s birth. By the time of the concluding “Gloria in excelsis” passage, the voices can barely contain themselves for excitement, running up and down scales like angels ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder.

The Magnificat, Mary’s hymn of praise on receiving the news that she is to bear the Christ, is not merely a Christmas text, but one used daily in Christian liturgy as evidence of God’s word made manifest. This accounts for Tomás Luis de Victoria’s eighteen settings of the text, designed to be performed at the evening service of Vespers. This Magnificat Primi Toni – meaning it is based on the “first tone” of plainchant psalmody – is one of the most special of them all and would have been appropriate for a high feast day, perhaps Christmas itself. Unlike most of the other settings, in which verses set to polyphony alternate with simple plainchant, here the music is polyphonic throughout, and set for not one but two four-part choirs.

Not a great deal is known about Claudin de Sermisy, though we encounter him at various moments in his life as witness to well-documented historical events. He was present, for example, at the meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in his capacity as a member of the French Chapel Royal. His compositions span secular chansons and sacred motets, of which Salve Regina is one.

This text, Salve Regina, was of great importance across the Catholic world, but especially in Spanish Catholic practice, to the extent that its use became the focus of an independent, devotional “Salve service” in many churches. This practice was enthusiastically taken up by the colonies in the New World. A manuscript from Guatemala holds a great many settings of the antiphon, of which no fewer than five are composed by Hernando Franco, a Spaniard who spent time in Guatemala before becoming maestro de capilla at the new Mexico City Cathedral.

John Taverner was amongst the most pre-eminent English musicians of his day. He worked for a time at Cardinal Wolsey’s new college in Oxford (now Christ Church), directing the choir and composing music, much of which is preserved in partbooks still held there. O splendor gloriae is of special interest on account of its attribution in this source, which list two composers - “Taverner & Tye.” This was Christopher Tye, a contemporary of Taverner’s. If correct, the attribution suggests a collaboration between the two composers, most likely each one setting a section of polyphony. This could account for the subtly changing textures which keep this lengthy antiphon from becoming turgid. The text is also remarkable – a paean of praise to the Trinity which details the whole of salvation history, from man’s first disobedience through to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

-- Program Notes by James M. Potter