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Sacred Muses

           The sixteenth century was a time of change for Europe. The seeds of the Italian renaissance were beginning to disseminate across the continent, carried on the breeze of the printing press. Yet while culture was drawing Europe’s nations ever closer, the Reformation was driving them apart, splitting the continent irrevocably down the fault lines of Catholic and Protestant.

           Tonight’s concert showcases music from the Golden Age of England and the Netherlands. Works by Byrd and Josquin might be divided by religion, but each represents the pinnacle of creative achievement within two very different schools of composition.

           We open with music from William Byrd (c. 1540-1623)—colleague, collaborator, and possibly student of the older Thomas Tallis. Spanning the greater part of the Tudor dynasty, it is through the work of these two composers that we can trace the changing liturgical and stylistic conventions of this period of religious unrest. The Latin texts used by all but one of tonight’s English works reflect the essential contradiction of the age; under not only Mary, but also Elizabeth and the latter years of Henry VIII, the Latin Rite and Latin-texted music quietly persisted—an important focus for Catholic Tallis and the staunchly recusant Byrd, once famously described by Elizabeth I as “A stiff Papist and a good subject.”

           With its trumpet-like opening gambit, Vigilate plunges us into a world of drama and musical narrative. All the rhythmic vigor and expressive ingenuity of the secular madrigal is brought to bear here on a sacred text warning of the ever-present threat of the Day of Judgement. A cock-crow is rendered with unmistakable clarity, while the “sudden” appearance of the Lord is heralded by choppy little exchanges that hustle and push in upon each other and a shift of time signature.

           Byrd’s two volumes of Cantiones Sacrae (published in 1589 and 1591) are united by their Latin texts—clear indication that the works were intended not for the Protestant church, but for Byrd’s own community of recusant Catholics. Laetentur Coeli belongs to the first volume, one of two vibrant Advent motets (the other being Vigilate) that anticipate God’s coming with dramatic urgency. After the religious conflicts of Henry VIII and Mary I’s reigns, how resonant must this text—“There shall rise in thy days justice, and an abundance of peace”—have been?

           The opening of Byrd’s motet sets the elegant rejoicing of the heavens, with their rising scalic melody, against the more heavy-footed celebrations on earth. Rhythms are syncopated and lively, and the imitative dance continues throughout Part I. Part II, “Orietur in diebus,” opens in more contemplative mood with a reduced-voices verse section, but gradually regains confidence and ends in full-throttle musical rejoicing.

           The Catholic plight is also at the fore in the penitential richness of Plorans ploravit. Once again Byrd takes the Babylonian captivity (vividly described here in a text from Jeremiah) as a metaphor for England under Protestant rule, and demonstrates in the insistent lamentation of his falling scalic motifs that his ear for persuasive point-scoring is still keen, even at this late stage of his career.

           Written after the death of Thomas Tallis, Ye Scared Muses is a rare secular work from Byrd, and its madrigalian coloring gives plaintive voice to his personal grief at the loss of his colleague and teacher. Scored for five voices, the work is most commonly performed by solo voice and viol consort, but voices can also provide an alternative. The whole work is animated by emotive little harmonic touches and suspensions, but perhaps most moving is the extended repetition of the final phrase: “Tallis is dead and music dies”—a heartfelt sentiment, but one fortunately proved wrong by the musical richness we have already heard today.

           Ne Irascaris is deservedly celebrated among Byrd’s motets for its elegant marriage of political protest and exquisite musical invention. Five voices weave in dense contrapuntal imitation, their text pointed by occasional harmonic twists of the knife, before finding temporary peace in the meditative acceptance of Part II’s closing refrain: “Jerusalem desolata est.”

           Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521) was the Franco-Flemish master of polyphony—the dominant musical force in an era rich with composers, and a pioneer of the cyclic Mass-setting. Among numerous parody and paraphrase Masses however, only a handful of settings based on a plainchant original survive in Josquin’s output, and the Missa Gaudeamus may well be the earliest. But far from an apprentice piece, the work displays a flexibility and creativity towards its source material that looks ahead to the paraphrase techniques that would flourish throughout the 16th century, not least in Josquin’s own Missa Pange Lingua.

           Based on Gregorian introit Gaudeamus Omnes, the Mass was possibly intended for All Saints Day, and its complexity and scale are certainly fit for a major feast. There are passages in which the music is rooted in a cantus firmus, but this is far from a constant. Instead, this technique is combined with ostinato-based passages, and moments of freely evolving counterpoint. Even when the cantus firmus is present, the tenor does not behave as we might expect; rather than anchoring the music with slow, sustained notes, the voice is often seduced by the rhythmic patterns of other parts, imitating them and dissolving back into the texture.

           It has been suggested that the Mass also contains a covert layer of symbolism. Repetitions of the plainchant’s distinctive opening motif recur throughout each movement, though in no obvious proportion to the length of each movement (six times in the Kyrie, twenty-seven in the Agnus Dei). Instead, the number correlates to key episodes in the Book of Revelation, conveying broader thematic ideas about salvation, perhaps appropriate to All Saints.

           Very little is known of Edmund Turges (c. 1450-1500)—even the composer’s name is subject to debate. But together with composers like Robert Fayrfax and John Browne, he formed part of an early flourishing of English polyphony epitomized by the music of the Eton Choirbook, embellishing choral textures with new intricacy and contrapuntal complexity. Three Magnificats by Turges have been lost from the Eton Choirbook, but one survives in the Caius Choirbook—a manuscript dating from the late 1520s—and gives some idea of what we might be missing. The twenty-minute work is an extraordinary achievement of early Renaissance polyphony, gilded and woven into a musical tapestry of rare and intricate complexity.

           The composer takes the tradition of the alternatim Magnificat, alternating verses of plainchant and polyphony, and amplifies it. The structure remains the same, but the polyphonic sections are finessed into a series of inventive and elaborate episodes, featuring everything from complex rhythmic counterpoint, swift-moving quaver flourishes, extremes of range and, most prominently, lengthy and sustained melismas, subordinating text to a greater musical goal. The result has the same scope and impact as the arching interior of a Gothic cathedral, teeming with detail and drama.