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Tallis Scholars: Sacred Interpretations

According to legend, the melodies of the traditional chants of the church were dictated to Pope Gregory I by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove—a moment depicted in countless works of art in the Middle Ages. Salve Regina is one of the most enduring of these melodies, and is still sung as an antiphon after various Offices of the Catholic Church. Immediately recognizable, in its solemn form, by its four-note opening motif, it was frequently used as the basis for polyphonic compositions by medieval and renaissance musicians.

Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla was a Spanish composer who spent much of his life working in the New World, in what is now Mexico. His setting of the Salve Regina, for double choir, makes frequent reference to the chant, fragments of which crop up in several voice parts. In common with music by many of the composers from what came to be known as the Iberian ‘Golden Age,’ there are passages of striking rhythmic vitality, with lively syncopations punctuating the text. Francis Poulenc’s setting of this text, written several centuries later, occupies an entirely different sound-world: austere, and yet, as its delicate harmonies brush against one another, alive to the mystery inherent in the text.

William Cornysh’s Salve Regina was included in the Eton Choirbook, a late-fifteenth-century collection of the finest English sacred music of the time, and shares the sense of unhurried spaciousness that characterizes much of the collection. Indeed, the established text wasn’t long enough for medieval English composers, who extended or ‘troped’ the text by adding additional verses.

The Ave Maria is one of the defining prayers of the Catholic Church, borrowing from the Angel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary announcing the good news: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Cornysh’s Ave Maria is in fact based neither on the chant nor the prayer, instead it uses the familiar opening two words to introduce a bespoke devotion, addressing the Blessed Virgin Mary as, in turn, queen of the heavens, mistress of the world, and empress of hell.

Both the Ave Maria and Salve Regina feature in key scenes of Poulenc’s 1957 opera Dialogues des Carmélites, which is set in a late-eighteenth-century Carmelite nunnery. The latter is sung by the nuns as they are to be executed one by one by Revolutionary forces. The Ave Maria comes from the middle of the opera, sung by the nuns together, and shares much of its structure and tonal language with the composer’s choral music. Here it is presented in an arrangement for unaccompanied voices.

One often wonders what Gregorio Allegri would think of the strange and special legacy of his Miserere. A fairly straightforward, penitential setting of a supplicatory psalm, he wrote it as a falsobordone—that is, a piece in which text is recited on a chord before a concluding formula—and based it on the ancient tonus peregrinus. One imagines it would have caused him no moderate amount of shock to learn that his work, transmuted through a centuries-long process of embellishment and alteration by generations of musicians, would one day lay claim to being the most famous piece of choral music in the world. Those embellishments go some way towards explaining this—that famous high C, which derives from the ornamentation with which the skilled singers of the Papal Choir of the Sistine Chapel would regularly elaborate on written music.

Though he too was active at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Giovanni Croce’s setting of the Miserere is very different. For one thing, it is not the same text—Croce is here setting an Italian sonnet-form translation of the psalm, by Francesco Bembo, which had subsequently been translated back into Latin. The six-voice texture allows for different groupings of voices, and the composer adds variety by combining the voices for dramatic moments of full-choir homophony.

Much of the most profound sacred choral music arises from the contemplation of the Eucharist—the miracle of the bread and wine turned flesh and blood. O sacrum convivium explores this mystical phenomenon, and both Thomas Tallis and Olivier Messiaen, though centuries apart, clearly find it somewhat intoxicating. Tallis’ ritualistic polyphony rises and falls, frequently including the exquisite pain of false relations—cadences where two parts clash against one another before the resolution. Messiaen’s harmonies are piquant, too, the chords and dark sonority swirling about like incense. Throughout, there is an ecstatic quality, never more so than in the Alleluia, which is not forthright but quietly radiant and intense.

The Magnificat, Mary’s hymn of praise on receiving the news that she is to bear the Christ, is not merely a text for the Christmas season, but one used daily in Christian liturgy as evidence of God’s word made manifest. In the nascent Anglican liturgy of sixteenth-century England, the ‘Short Service’ form evolved as a way to deliver this text in the vernacular, and in such a way that the words could be clearly understood. Ever alive to the rhythms of the text, William Byrd’s setting performs this function admirably, moving flexibly between four and five voices.

At the same time on the continent, the Magnificat was still firmly entrenched in the service of Vespers, and sung in Latin polyphony. The Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Magnificat primi toni—which means it is based on the ‘first tone’ of plainchant psalmody—is one of the most special of all eighteen of the composer’s Magnificats, and would have been appropriate for a high feast day. 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.

© James M. Potter, 2019