During the renaissance, musical composition flourished, but it was a time of great change, fueled by religious division. This program traces music written by some of the English renaissance masters over a period of two hundred years, encompassing florid medieval-sounding pieces by Thomas Morley and Sheryngham, intricately woven polyphonic works by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, and the beautiful simplicity of Robert White and Thomas Tomkins.
All of these composers were obliged to write in the musical style of the moment, which was constantly fluctuating in one of the most turbulent periods in English history. Lavish Catholic services required suitably elaborate music, with Latin texts and rich sonorities. The Protestants did away with such excess, and as the walls were whitewashed so too was the music, with demands placed on composers to set English words as simply as possible, so that every syllable could be clearly heard by the congregation. Then, in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, came a kind of relaxed simplicity, a halfway house, in which the ideal was both that the words could be heard clearly and also that the music should be interesting.
The incredible productivity of composers writing during this period, coupled with the advent of printed sheet music and licenses granted for its production, has resulted in a wealth of material available to us...
While all composers in Tudor England were flexible to the period’s shifting religious requirements, none was quite as skillful at reinvention as Tallis, whose music remains absolutely consistent in its quality, even while his style changes dramatically.
The recusant Byrd gave voice to the plight of Catholics in England through many of his compositions, using his royal favor to escape punishment for his beliefs, and in doing so wrote some of the most enduring and powerful music of the era. To commemorate his 400th anniversary year (1623–2023), we pay special attention to his music, one of the foremost composers of British shores and revered around Europe.
The incredible productivity of composers writing during this period, coupled with the advent of printed sheet music and licenses granted for its production, has resulted in a wealth of material available to us—and, as such, selecting only a handful to represent ‘English motets’ as a whole is by no means easy. But I hope that we manage to showcase something of the extraordinary journey which composition took around the English Reformation and, in turn, reflect our immense enjoyment in performing the music we all grew up singing.”