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Stile Antico: Toward the Dawn

Tonight’s program charts a course from twilight to sunrise, echoing both the rhythms of church liturgy and the medieval experience of night, seductive and unsettling in equal measure. 

We begin with John Wilbye’s Draw on, sweet night, published in 1598 in the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign. The poet, wallowing in gloom, yearns for darkness to mirror his own inner state. Wilbye’s music perfectly captures the bittersweet quality of the text in chains of deliciously drawn-out dissonance. A similar poetic conceit underlies Come, sable night from the 1613 First Book of Madrigals by the Jacobean composer John Ward, whose outstanding music deserves to be much better known. Ward clothes his melancholy text in music of startling nuance and harmonic richness.

Between these madrigals we sing one of two settings of Te lucis ante terminum by Thomas Tallis, whose career spanned no fewer than four monarchs. The hymn sets a text for Compline, the final office of the monastic day, and is a prayer for God’s protection through the forthcoming night. The only remaining source for this hymn is Cantiones Sacrae of 1575, a publication which Tallis produced jointly with William Byrd, each of them contributing seventeen Latin motets. That the book was, it seems, intended not only for use in private homes but also for distribution abroad (in order to rival the great motet books of the continental masters), suggests that these may be merely token showpieces of a particular liturgical genre, written specifically for the Cantiones, rather than older pieces which Tallis dug out of his archives from the days of the Sarum rite. The musical style seems to support this hypothesis: their economy, elegance, and characteristic five-part texture is typical of many of his other Elizabethan works.

William Byrd served as a Gentleman of Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal but nevertheless remained active in the undercover Catholic community. His music often expresses coded support for the Catholic cause—nowhere more than in his subversive 1589 Cantiones Sacrae, whose texts, while scrupulously biblical, would have carried clear resonances for his persecuted Catholic friends. The superb Vigilate is a case in point, exhorting true believers to stay awake and prepare for the return of their judge. Byrd pulls out all the stops, depicting the crowing of the cockerel, the drooping head of the lethargic believer, and the sudden panic at the unexpected return of the master, in vivid madrigalian fashion.

Night arrives, but our sleep is fitful at best. The luscious chanson Toutes les nuitz by Orlando de Lassus, first published in 1563, depicts a solitary lover with only a pillow to kiss; constantly shifting between minor and major, it sounds like a study in frustration.

We mark the darkest watch of the night with the famous Miserere (c. 1638) by Gregorio Allegri, written for the service of Tenebrae in Holy Week —the bleakest moment of the entire liturgical year. Few works have been the subject of so much myth-making; tradition relates that it was so jealously guarded that unauthorized copyists risked excommunication, that its famous ornaments were never notated, but solemnly passed from singer to singer, and that it was finally smuggled out of the Sistine Chapel in the head of the young Mozart. Though most of this is demonstrably untrue, it is clear that the work we have now is far from what Allegri wrote—and in particular, that the famous passage containing the soprano top Cs is a bizarre conflation of different editions and transpositions.

The work, then, is inauthentic, but it is precisely its inauthenticity that has become its most enduring feature: this odd hybrid has a hypnotic beauty all of its own. A complete setting of the penitential Psalm 51, it is based on the plainchant tonus peregrinus. Two separate choirs, one of five voices and one of four, harmonize and elaborate the chant in falsobordone style, alternating with verses of unadorned plainchant. Only in the final psalm verse do the two choirs come together to close the work in a satisfyingly monumental fashion.

The epic setting of Psalm 51 is followed by another Compline work—the gently sonorous In manus tuas by John Sheppard, probably dating from the reign of Henry VIII. The beautiful miniature commends the listener’s soul to God for the night. But insomnia of a different sort returns,  characterized wonderfully in Nico Muhly’s Gentle Sleep, a 2016 Wigmore Hall commission for Stile Antico. Muhly sets verses from Henry IV Part II, in which sleep evades the careworn monarch. Muhly wrote that “setting Shakespeare is near impossible” and risks becoming “an act of vandalism.” His solution was therefore “to fragment the text so that specific lines emerge from a soporific texture of repeated phrases.” The result is a rich, complex tapestry of sound, by turns lulling and insistent, but never finding repose.

The first glimmers of dawn are signalled by Tallis’s O nata lux de lumine, taken from England’s earliest printed publication of music, the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae. The text, a hymn appropriate for the morning service of Lauds, describes Christ as ‘Light born of Light’; the crystalline simplicity of Tallis’s music conjures an atmosphere of freshness and renewal. Soon we sense nature stirring in the morning breeze, painted with exquisite poise by Monteverdi in Ecco mormorar l’onde from the Second Book of Madrigals (1590).

Our musical sunrise arrives in the shape of John Taverner’s immense Ave Dei Patris filia. Probably written during the 1520s, it is based on the Matins plainchant Te Deum, and its text praises the Virgin, who is compared both to the sun and the moon; Taverner relishes the words ‘ut sol’—‘like the sun’, playing on their double meaning as the ascending fifth in the medieval hexachord. Like many large-scale antiphons, it falls into two parts—the first in triple time and the second in duple metre. Sections for solo singers (most thrillingly, for three high voices in the second part) alternate with monumental sections of polyphony for the full choir. The most remarkable music of all is reserved for the final Amen: a dazzling web of complex rhythmic and motivic interplay, leaving the listener bathed in golden light.

—Notes provided by Andrew Griffiths