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The Tallis Scholars: Christmas Across Centuries

Just as the chant Puer natus est nobis underpins Thomas Tallis’s monumental setting of the mass, proclaiming, “Unto us a boy is born!,” so too the theme of Christ’s birth courses through all of tonight’s music. We move through the wonder and mystery of the Annunciation, the expectant hush of Advent, and the joy of Christmas, whilst looking ahead to Christ’s sacrifice and the institution of the “bread of angels” in the Eucharist.

Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has become widely celebrated for his choral music, at once spare and richly textured. Its twin focus on the sonority of the triad and the use of silence finds its most perfect outlet in texts for the season of Advent. The Seven Antiphons comprise a setting of what are often referred to as the “Great ‘O’ Antiphons.” Each begins “O...” and heralds a particular virtue of Christ as prophesied by Isaiah. In the Catholic tradition, these are allotted to be sung either side of the Magnificat at Vespers on the last seven days of Advent.

Pärt treats each antiphon as a sort of choral miniature, allowing each its particular character. O Weisheit invokes “the order of all things” in generous, spacious major chords. O Adonai uses the lower voices only, treating them almost as drones. Voices emerge out of this dark texture to speak of the mystery of the burning bush. O Spross acts as a counterpart, using only the upper voices. Its final prayer is that Christ “delay no longer”...and so it proves, as immediately the central antiphon, O Schlüssel Davids, arrives in a blaze of A minor. It is followed by O Morgenstern, whose bitonality—two of the voices arpeggiate in E major, while the other two move melodically in E minor— creates a sense of uncertainty. O König aller Völker builds urgency, as the monotone recitation in the alto part grows ever more insistent. O Immanuel begins quietly, with the upper part climbing an A major chord with each new phrase. The other parts spiral up slowly through the circle of fifths, syncopated against the soprano, growing in intensity, until finally all come into alignment in a spacious A major which brings us full circle with the beginning of O Weisheit.

The Magnificat follows O Emmanuel—just as it would in a service of Vespers on the last day of Advent. Mary’s hymn is her response to the Angel Gabriel’s foretelling of her destiny, to bear the Son of God. The Magnificat accordingly speaks of acceptance and humility in the face of God’s word. Pärt’s setting manages to find both majesty and mystery in these words, even whilst remaining always within F minor. His characteristic tintinnabuli style of melodic voices sounding against and within triadic harmony is shown here to haunting effect.

Though working over four hundred years before Pärt, a similar concern with the interaction of melody with harmony can be found in the music of English composer John Sheppard. In Sacris solemniis he sets a hymn of St Thomas Aquinas for the feast of Corpus Christi, which celebrates Christ’s coming in the form of the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This allows him to use one of his favourite techniques: constructing an elaborate network of polyphonic voices around a pre-existing chant melody, sounded in long notes. The piece alternates verses of the hymn, sung unadorned, with these passages of rich, spacious polyphony built on the same tune. The chant is in the uppermost voice, though Sheppard treats it flexibly, dividing it into two and fragmenting the tune into small units. This renders all the more effective those moments where the voices come together for emphasis in verse four, at the words “dicens accipite”—where Christ instructs his disciples to receive the cup of his blood.

In the England of 1554, Christmas was an occasion of special celebration. Queen Mary had recently married Philip of Spain, in a union designed to strengthen England’s newly-restored bond to Roman Catholicism after the Protestant dalliances of her brother’s short reign. In addition, Mary seemed to most observers to be pregnant. Accordingly, there is a sense of jubilance in Thomas Tallis’s grand, seven-voice mass, which was likely first performed at this time. It is based on the plainsong “Puer natus est nobis”— “A boy is born to us, and a son is given to us whose government shall be upon his shoulders.” Even though the text of the chant is not used, the allusion encoded into the DNA of the music would have been picked up by those who heard it. It was an expression of hope, that the throne of Catholic England might be granted the security of a male heir.

The unusual original scoring of the work—seven voices at low pitch—can probably be attributed to the presence of Philip’s Capilla Flamenca, or “Flemish Chapel Choir,” who would have accompanied their King to England. It is conceivable that the mass was envisaged for joint performance by the two royal choirs together. Philip’s choir also contained composers of considerable repute, including Philippe de Monte. It’s not inconceivable that Tallis saw an occasion to demonstrate the virtues of English music to his continental rival.

The English composer rose to the challenge, demonstrating virtuosic skill in the assembly of the mass. The plainchant is slowed down, and runs in long notes in the tenor voice. It’s a technique we have heard in John Sheppard’s music—though by the 1550s, the religious upheavals of the previous decades had led to the practice falling out of favour. The composer juxtaposes this archaic technique with more modern features which were associated with “continenta” composition, such as close imitation between the other voices. This allows him to maintain musical interest whilst the chant is deployed in such long notes (in the Agnus Dei, one such note sounds for a nearly unbroken stretch of thirty-one bars!). An unusual, even experimental work, the mass must surely have impressed those who heard it, in its skilful composition and fervour.

Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria is a text appointed for Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation, which celebrates Christ being taken to the temple by his parents in accordance with Jewish law. As is common among Marian devotion, the responsory focuses on Mary’s chastity, celebrating her “inviolate” nature as befitting the mother of God. Once again, we find in Sheppard’s setting the plainsong sounded in long notes—this time in the tenor—whilst a polyphonic tapestry is weaved above and below it.

In his setting of one of the most important passages from the Gospel of John, I am the true vine, Arvo Pärt eschews micro-expression of the text, preferring to present it in as it were a beautiful frame. The central metaphor of the text—Christ as the vine in which all must abide—is expressed in the form of the piece itself. Like much of the composer’s work, it follows a rigid compositional process, though manages to avoid drawing too much attention to its mathematical qualities. In this case, a succession of notes is repeated six times. The voices pass these notes between them, building up chords according to a strict pattern—one voice, then two, three, three, two, one. The effect is that the text is always in motion, passing from voice to voice, yet with each voice inhabiting—or “abiding in”—the same pitches. As a result, the piece has the qualities of stasis and timelessness which characterize the composer’s finest music, and reflect that quality of faith which former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has described as “silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark.”

Program Note by James M. Potter