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The Phoenix Rising

      Amongst the many and diverse projects funded by the Carnegie UK Trust, one in particular was to transform the musical life of the whole nation to a degree unimaginable at the time: the publication of Tudor Church Music (TCM), a ten-volume collected “library” edition of works by the great Tudor composers published between 1922–1929, accompanied by a series of individual “octavo” performing editions of individual pieces for use by choirs. The project did not enjoy an auspicious start: the original editor proved unable to progress with the task, and was ousted by the members of his editorial committee. They continued the work, but slow progress and mounting losses on the expensive library edition caused the Trust to pull the plug on ten of the original twenty volumes proposed. Indeed, the Trust came to the pessimistic view that, “There is, as yet, little evidence to justify the belief that the recovered music is likely to take a prominent place in the ordinary church choir repertoires.” How wrong they were!

      The octavo editions did in fact raise the profile of Tudor music in choral circles – though some pieces were notably more popular (such as Byrd’s Ave verum, published in 1922, which sold 16,629 copies by 1930). To a striking extent, the original choice of pieces for the octavo series effectively determined the “core” Tudor repertoire of the next 75 years. Once even a handful of these had become established in choral repertoire, it was only a matter of time before interest in this music skyrocketed. Nowadays there can hardly be a cathedral, collegiate, or serious church choir whose repertoire does not include a significant quantity of music by Byrd, Tallis, and Gibbons. It has since become as commonplace outside the ecclesiastical environment as in it, with the advent in the 1970s of specialist ensembles such as the trailblazing Clerkes of Oxenford and the Tallis Scholars, whose recordings have taken the repertoire to a worldwide audience. This repertoire also profoundly influenced a whole new generation of English composers—Howells, Tippett, and Britten amongst them. In short, the impact of TCM was huge.

      This programme presents a selection from those original ten library volumes, some of which were included in the octavo series and are, as a result, better known. Byrd’s Ave verum—originally published in his Gradualia of 1605, part of a collection of year-round liturgical music for the recusant Catholics—is a case in point. Indeed, its familiarity makes it easy for us to overlook just what astonishingly powerful music this is. The extraordinary opening chord progression (highlighting the word “verum,” the presence of the true body of Christ in the mass being a key point of contention for the Catholics) seems to evoke the language of Lassus’s later works, while the searing suspensions, close-knit texture, and broken up phrases are reminiscent of Victoria’s heart-rending O vos omnes while yet always being unmistakably Byrd’s voice.

      This ability to draw critically upon a wide range of musical influences and make them uniquely his own was one of Byrd’s great hallmarks; nowhere is it more visible than in his three mass-settings, published in the early 1950s (with the recusant Catholics in view). Prevalent in the five-part mass is a nod to the “old style” of the pre-Reformation antiphon through the contrast between full passages and those scored for smaller groups of voices, and it has been observed that there may be a covert homage to Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas in the “in nomine” section (though the structural and thematic links to Taverner are even stronger in the four- and three-part settings). Yet this mass is as modern as any of its time in its dynamic engagement with the text, both in simple word-painting (such as the ascending point at “et ascendit” in the Credo) and, perhaps more importantly, in the careful use of rhetorical devices such as repetition (as in the final Agnus, where a homophonic texture is also adopted for the first time in the movement to heighten the impact of the text declamation). Above all, Byrd’s sophisticated control of structure to pace the build-up of emotional intensity shines through. 

      Byrd learnt much from his friend and teacher Thomas Tallis, represented here by two of his best-loved works. The thrilling motet Loquebantur variis linguis is among a small number of pieces intended for a joint performance by Phillip II of Spain’s Capilla Flamenca and Queen Mary’s Chapel Royal, possibly during their wedding festivities. Its unusual seven-part scoring (shared in Tallis’s oeuvre with only the Missa Puer natus est and the large scale motet Suscipe quaeso) hints at forces larger than the usual Chapel Royal configuration. The text—a Pentecost responsory concerning the giving of the Holy Spirit—could alternatively be read as a witty depiction of the singers’ difficulty understanding each other! Likewise, the constant stream of clichéd false relations could either be seen as a colourful depiction of the clamour of Pentecostal tongues, or as a friendly jibe at the Flemish compositional style. It’s a plausible theory—but unproven. 

      In ieiunio et fletu is a motet of extraordinary emotive power achieved not just in the contrast between the points, but in the extraordinary use of harmony in the opening section (again, the closest parallel is late Lassus). A progression of seemingly barely-related chords presents to us, as if dumbstruck, the scene of priests lamenting their desecrated heritage. When we move to the words of the priests themselves, the voices reach the highest point in their tessitura as if to echo the impassioned cries for mercy. It is hard not to see this piece as in some way a metaphor for the plight of the Catholics in England, although at this stage the worst of the persecution was yet to come.

      Tallis’s younger contemporary Robert White is represented here with the beautiful motet, Christe qui lux es. The strophic quality of the text in this compline hymn is clearly profiled in alternating verses of plainsong and polyphony; as was common practice in the liturgical music of Mary I’s Catholic revival, the polyphonic verses set the plainsong melody as a monorhythmic cantus firmus. 

      Thomas Morley is known primarily as a madrigalist, though he composed a significant number of sacred works too. Nolo mortem belongs to that category of pieces common in the late 16th century which seem to bridge the gap between the sacred “Anthem” and the devotional madrigal. The work appears in a secular source and was probably originally conceived as domestic music, but the editors of TCM had no qualms about including it as “church music” and it would have been suitable enough in either context. With its repeated Latin “burden,” it vividly recalls the English Carol of the early 16th century. 

      Representing the next generation is Orlando Gibbons. Known as the finest organist of his generation, he was also a composer of flamboyant virtuosity, as is amply demonstrated in his renowned setting of Psalm 47, O clap your hands together. A brilliant work, it was written for a certain William Heyther to present to supplicate for his Oxford doctorate in 1622. (In spite of his apparent deficiency as a composer, Heyther became the university’s first Professor of Music!) Gibbons’ masterful counterpoint is on display again in the joyous Palm Sunday anthem Hosanna to the Son of David, which skilfully depicts the cries of the exultant crowd.

      The oldest work represented here is commonly ascribed to John Taverner, one of the great fathers of the English late Renaissance. The votive antiphon O splendour gloriae is firmly rooted in the soaring polyphonic language of the Eton Choirbook, with its contrasting reduced-voice passages and full sections. Yet there are many modern features, not least the move away from Marian devotion towards a Trinitarian text heavily laden with scriptural references, greater use of syllabic text setting, and more insistent repeated rhythmic patterns, all features which suggest that the work comes from late in his oeuvre, when all these characteristics were becoming increasingly popular. One source ascribes the work to both Taverner and his younger contemporary Christopher Tye. Whatever the truth, it is a work of striking warmth and inventiveness, and its closely-knit Amen provides a suitably thrilling conclusion to the programme.