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New York Polyphony: Tallis Lamentations

“Legacy” the music of Thomas Tallis

While Thomas Tallis’s name may not be uttered as quickly as Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach when naming the greatest composers in the Western classical canon — it should be. While his extant output is relatively small and mostly sacred in nature, we have vocal and instrumental works in a vast exploration of styles. Tallis was born around 1505 in the early days of the Tudor Period when the most elaborate polyphony of the Renaissance was being composed. This music has been preserved in spectacularly ornate choir books at Eton College and the Abbey at St. Alban’s.  Tallis’s career is spread across the reign of four successive monarchs through the most dangerous time of religious upheaval in England’s history. Tallis was closely associated with royal life, writing music to most perfectly match the liturgical requirements of those monarchs both Catholic and Protestant, and he survived to quite an old age of some 80 years before his death in 1585. We know little of his early days but through financial records can be sure he served at Waltham Abbey in Kent until 1540 when the monasteries began to be dissolved. He was then briefly a Gentleman at Canterbury Cathedral before taking up the lifelong post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal — not a building but a collection of singers and players who travelled with the monarch to provide the liturgy for daily church services. This program offers as broad a look at Tallis’s career output as our voices will allow, beginning with his earliest music written before the beginnings of the Reformation and carrying right through to music we must assume to be from the days after The Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1559.

Tallis’s early work shows signs of a composer still building his skills. These works consist of responsories for the Daily Office, and Votive Antiphons to the Virgin Mary; Ave Dei Patris Filia, Ave Rosa Sine Spinis, and Salve Intermerata — the latter on which Tallis based a sublime parody Mass. The antiphons are more sparse in their polyphony and rarely showcase the usual full texture of five voices but rather pairs and trios. Sancte Deus is one of these Votive antiphons (intended to be sung after the office of Compline) though it is set in four voices and the polyphony is quite thick. The text is in praise of the Christ rather than the typical antiphon to the Virgin Mary. The ancient Greek Trisagion — “Holy God, Holy and mighty, Holy immortal one, have mercy upon us” — is intended for a penitential season and takes its time setting text with numerous stops and starts and the rare use in the Renaissance of a fermata or a hold over particular words such as “Noli” — “do not” (though curiously not over the name of “Christ”). Rounding out the early repertoire of Tallis’s output are two Responsories; Audivi vocem de caelo and Hodie nobis caelorum which alternate plainsong with polyphony for the Daily Office of All Saints’ Day and Christmas Day respectively. In the former, the four part polyphony and the Sarum (Salisbury) liturgy calls for four boys to play the “role” of the four wise virgins preparing for the bridegroom while the boisterous Hodie hearkens to rowdy shepherds clamoring to race to Bethlehem to see the Christ-child.

The two sets of Lamentations are among the best known of Tallis’s compositions (along with the ubiquitous 40-part motet Spem in alium), though these are surely the most beloved by singers. The texts are taken from the liturgy for Holy Thursday and bewail the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians. The people of Israel are called to remember its glory days and that all is now lain waste. Words from Hosea provide an epilogue asking the Church to “convert and return to the Lord your God” (used in nearly all settings of the Lamentations). The Lamentations are from the early days of Elizabeth’s reign who, while a Protestant, is known to have loved the Latin language and allowed some Latin to be sung in her private services.

The English anthems If ye love me and A new commandment are from the earliest days of the Protestant church in England during the reign of Edward VI. Elaborate polyphony and virtually all liturgical singing was banned. These simpler anthems are drawn directly from scripture and serve as mini-sermons in music fitting into the Book of Common Prayer liturgy as Archbishop Cranmer’s rubric states: “In quires and places where they sing, here followeth the anthem.” Archbishop Matthew Parker translated the Psalms into rhythmic meter which was set in the Day Psalter by a number of composers.  Why fum’th in fight is the third of eight Psalm tunes set by Tallis and is best known as the theme from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis. Andrew Smith’s association with New York Polyphony goes back to our beginnings and he elegantly creates his own Tallis fantasia on the same tune to themes of the Passion written by Fred Pratt Green.

Tallis died in 1585 and was buried in Greenwich, ten years after the publication of the “Cantiones Sacrae” of 1575 — a joint effort with his pupil, William Byrd.  This collection contains 34 motets in Latin; 17 from each composer presented to the Queen in the 17th year of her reign. Both composers were pragmatists and Catholics at heart, Tallis less militantly while Byrd was dangerously committed to his faith. The texts of the “Cantiones Sacrae” are deeply personal and penitential.  Each composer’s unique compositional qualities are shown — Tallis’s wonderful sense of musical phrase and line; Byrd’s gift is showing his love of the Latin language and his unquestionable Catholic Faith. Tallis’s linear five-voice writing makes clear the textual points of imitation while Byrd’s vertical six-voice texture allows for text painting through harmony and discord.


- Notes by Geoffrey Williams