“…One evening I had lit the candles and was sitting on the couch lost in reverie. My gaze fell upon a vase of red roses I had bought that morning at the market. Their beauty took my breath away. This is how this body of work was born. As with everything new, it is first born in emotion. Amor engaging Psyche. The above experience coincided –obviously not by chance- with the fact that still life had begun to get my attention whenever I was in museums. When the Academy of Fine Art was founded in France in the 17th century, a hierarchy of subject matters was established. Historical themes – along with mythological and allegorical ones- were placed at the very top. Second place was taken by portraiture. After that came everyday scenes, then landscapes, animals and lastly and very undervalued, came still life. Over the course of their entire history, still life was considered an appropriate subject matter for women. In many countries, women excelled especially in painting flowers. Is that pure coincidence?…”
When Robert Bolt wrote his 1960 play on the life of Thomas More (1478–1535), he chose a telling contemporary phrase for its title—A Man for All Seasons. Robert Whittington (c1480–1553) penned the description, explaining that More had no equal in ‘learning’ and ‘gentleness’ and could be ‘full of mirth’ or of ‘sad gravity’ depending on what was required at the time. More’s struggle to reconcile his own personal beliefs with the reforms of Henry VIII which led ultimately to his execution in 1535 is well known. Recent research has changed our view of the statesman-martyr and the appropriateness of the epithet but there is another man who deserves the accolade.
Thomas Tallis (c1505–1585) lived and worked through the reigns of four radically different and difficult monarchs, all of whom forced their own religious beliefs on an increasingly confused and divided country. Their various attitudes to the religious questions of the day meant that each required different liturgies and different music to adorn them. Henry VIII (1509–1547) inherited and encouraged a tradition of grand, lengthy music, with soaring lines which amplified, extended and enhanced the text to be sung. Yet, as he began the process of the English Reformation, and as composers became influenced by the more succinct style of their colleagues on the Continent, this style had to change. Pieces became shorter and more syllabic—a process encouraged by Archbishop Cranmer who believed that each syllable should have no more than one note. Under the boy-king Edward VI (1547–1553) and his Protestant advisors music was even more restricted, with the once famous high treble part (commented upon by Erasmus) removed and Latin texts abandoned. For Mary (1553–1558), determined to restore Catholicism to England, composers returned to the Latin language and wrote more substantial pieces, dividing the voices so as to produce pieces in six or seven parts rather than the more severe four-part writing of the Edwardine years. For the astute Elizabeth (1558–1603), the style changed yet again: Latin could still be used but the length of pieces again became more modest. The fact that Tallis produced excellent music in all of these styles is a tribute to his talent, to his patience and to his diplomatic skill, or at least to his devotion to his employers.
We cannot be sure of his date of birth—no records have yet come to light—but so complete is his understanding of the pre-Reformation style that he must have been born in time fully to experience and assimilate it. He produced Votive Antiphons, at least one Mass and a Magnificat setting which would not have been acceptable to Edward VI and would not have been à la mode for Queen Mary. Only Henry’s more Catholic regime would have required such pieces. The ‘best guess’ therefore is that Tallis was born around 1505, so that by the time we first hear of him as the organist of the very modest Benedictine Priory of Dover in 1532, he was about twenty-seven, old enough to compose with confidence and producing music for a rite which did not begin to change substantially until the mid-1530s. By 1537 he had come to London and found employment at the church of St Mary-at-Hill in Billingsgate, but in 1538 he moved again, this time to the Augustinian Abbey at Waltham in Essex. This proved to be something of a mistake. Henry’s systematic suppression of the monasteries began in earnest in 1536 (Dover Priory was an even earlier casualty in 1535) and ended in 1540 when Waltham Abbey was the last to be dissolved. Tallis found himself with neither job nor pension but quickly re-surfaced singing in the choir of Canterbury Cathedral, once a Benedictine institution but recently re-founded as a secular Cathedral. In 1544, Tallis’ name is found on the lay subsidy roll for the sovereign’s private chapel, the Chapel Royal, and he must have returned to London sometime after 1542.
Tallis married his wife, Joan, in or around 1552 and in 1557 was granted a twenty-one-year joint lease on a manor in Minster near Thanet in Kent by Queen Mary. In 1572 Tallis and his younger colleague William Byrd (1539/40–1623) petitioned Queen Elizabeth I for financial assistance and she responded by granting them a twenty-one-year monopoly on the printing and publishing of music. The Cantiones sacrae of 1575 was their only foray into the commercial world of publishing. Today it is appreciated as a fine collection of motets but at the time it quickly proved a financial disaster and led to a further petition for funds from the Queen in 1577. Tallis’ connection with the Chapel Royal remained throughout his life and he undoubtedly would have filled a variety of roles as composer, teacher, organist and singer. He died around 20 November 1585 and was buried in the Church of St Alphege in Greenwich.
The Votive Antiphon Salve intemerata virgo is an extended piece in honour of the Virgin Mary. Two regimes in Tallis’ lifetime required such pieces—Henry VIII’s pre-Reformation years and Mary’s restored Catholic rite. Its length and style combined with the rambling, rather complicated text clearly point to a piece for Henry. The antiphon is a great achievement with many fine and impressive moments and it is a great improvement on a rather jejune Latin four-voice Magnificat which probably pre-dates it. The earliest manuscript for the Antiphon is a single partbook dating from the late 1520s when Tallis would have been in his early twenties. He has obviously assimilated the work of Robert Fayrfax and others who excelled in the pre-Reformation style. The piece is in two main sections (the first in a triple metre and the second in a duple) and involves an alternation of sections for solo voices set against dramatic contributions from the full choir. It also includes an excellent final Amen section with a strong rhythmic impetus and a crescendo of imitation driving the listener to the final cadence.
Tallis’ decision to write a Missa Salve intemerata based on themes from the Antiphon points to yet another development in English music history. Unlike on the Continent, it had been more usual for English Masses to be based on plainsong tunes rather than on polyphonic compositions. Robert Fayrfax’s Missa O bone Jesu is probably the first to break the mould, followed by John Taverner’s Missa Mater Christi sanctissima and Missa Sancti Wilhelmi devotio. It is likely that the Missa Salve intemerata is later than the Antiphon. Tallis seems more in control of the music, although this may be a result of not having to wrestle with the rambling devotional text. He picks the best moments of the Antiphon to quote in the Mass and provides new and more succinct material when needed, especially in the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei. The Mass sounds more modern with its syllabic style, yet Tallis keeps the old English pre-Reformation conventions: there is no setting of the Kyrie, the Credo text is truncated and each movement begins with a head motif (the opening melodies of the Antiphon).
Also from this early period is the short Alleluia. Ora pro nobis for four voices. There is clearly a melody in the medius or alto part which means it can be identified as a liturgical text to be sung at Lady Mass (a daily celebration of the Eucharist which used texts relating to the Virgin Mary) on Tuesdays from Pentecost to Advent. The addition of a plainsong opening, or incipit, and the verse ‘Ora pro nobis’ allows a complete performance.
The three short pieces in English—If ye love me, A new commandment and the exquisite O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit—show Tallis writing for the reformed rites of Edward VI and Elizabeth (who reinstated Edward’s First Prayer Book of 1549 when she came to the throne). The first two are examples of anthems which either use the word ‘commandment’ or refer to how one should live a godly life. This was especially important for Edward VI’s time when these anthems can be seen to reinforce the exhortation to godly living which was now explicit as a result of the Bible being read in English and a greater emphasis on preaching and teaching. Gone are the great soaring lines of the pre-Reformation where, from time to time, it was difficult to hear which word the choir was singing. Gone also is the impressive English treble voice. Instead Tallis produces beautiful four-part miniatures in two sections with the second section repeated in an ABB structure. O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit, a setting of a prayer published in 1566, obviously dates from the time of Elizabeth I.
As the Votive Antiphon gradually went out of favour, composers and liturgists began to look around for other texts to set. The Book of Psalms (already being used by composers on the Continent) provided words to suit a variety of moods, and Psalm-motets started to appear during the 1540s. One text proved more popular than most, Psalm 15 or Domine, quis habitabit?. Not only Tallis, but also John Sheppard, Robert Parsons, Robert White (three times), William Mundy and William Byrd also set this text which, a little like the ‘commandment anthems’, gives information about how to live a godly life. Tallis’ setting is chaste and serious and clearly shows the influence of his Flemish contemporaries—only occasionally does he allow himself the luxury of some typically rich cadences.
Elizabeth’s first Archbishop of Canterbury was Matthew Parker, a former chaplain to the Queen’s mother Anne Boleyn. In 1567, he published his own translation of the Psalter into English metrical verse and at the back of the publication are nine ‘Tunes’ written by Tallis to allow the Psalms to be sung rather than said. Tallis’ Psalm Tunes are all in the same metre, so if the people wished to sing all of the Psalms, they would have to use other melodies to fit the wider variety of metres used by Parker. Each Psalm (strictly speaking, Tallis sets eight Psalms, plus the Ordinal Veni creator) is preceded by a short tag or ‘argument’ which provides a headline meditation on what is to follow, and each is concluded with a Collect or prayer. The publisher (or Tallis himself) provided a rubric, stating that the melody is found in the tenor part and that if there is a choir present, then the harmonies may be used. To give a flavour of what Parker and Tallis were trying to achieve, these nine ‘Tunes’ will be recorded over several albums in this series and three verses of each psalm will be sung together with the doxology. The first verse is sung by a baritone solo and the concluding prayer is also chanted.
The five-part English piece I call and cry to thee is the same music as the Latin motet O sacrum convivium published in the 1575 Cantiones sacrae. This habit of giving English words to Latin-texted pieces, known as contrafactum, was not uncommon during this period and may express a desire to sing music in the vernacular. It is thought that I call and cry may have started life as an instrumental fantasia, perhaps dating from the 1560s, but was revised and given its Latin title for inclusion in the 1575 publication. It is an exquisite piece, full of glorious imitation, based on syllabic writing and in an ABB form. It is beautiful in either language and is a good example of the fusion created by Tallis between the strict and controlled music of the Reformers and the more free, expansive writing of Mary’s restored Catholic rite.
Andrew Carwood © 2013
“…As Eric Ericson points out in his introduction to this disc, ‘Nordic people love to sing – choral singing is deeply rooted in our folk music.’ Which begs the question, why a French choir to perform this selection of 20th-century Scandinavian a cappella music? (On a different note I am intrigued to know why the choir has elected to be photographed sitting in shopping trolleys like so much cheap wine from a Calais hypermarket?)
Be that as it may, Accentus are a highly polished, hugely capable group who, under Ericson’s easygoing and relaxed control, produce sumptuously warm and overtly expressive performances. The third of Stenhammar’s somewhat churchy Choral Songs shows them off at their best, with a lavish, superbly balanced choral blend and lovely depth of tone.
Forty-nine minutes allows little scope to explore the rich seam of Scandinavian choral music from the last century, but the programme is neatly divided into two groups: the backward-looking, overtly romantic music of Stenhammar, Wikander and Alfven, and the slightly more adventurous work of four living composers, Jorgen Jersild, Jan Sandstrom, Lars Johan Werle and Knut Nystedt. The latter group presents a somewhat predictable selection of a cappella devices – sliding tonal clusters, choral speaking and free vocalisations – none of which presents any obvious challenges to these 32 highly accomplished singers. Sandstrom’s ‘Two Japanese Landscapes’ (Poem No 2), a thickly textured, atmospheric mood-piece, is probably the most successful and imaginative thing on the disc.
While the texts of all these songs are given in three languages I am surprised that no authors are mentioned (other than Petrarch, whose name appears, by default as it were, in the title of Werle’s overlong Canzone 126 di Petrarca). Are we to believe that these seven Scandinavian composers were also highly accomplished poets?’…”
Marc Rochester, gramophone.co.uk
…Though he is known now (as for much of his life) primarily as a composer of oratorios and operas, the Venetian Caldara made his name penning early examples of the trio sonata form; his Opp. 1 and 2 sets were published in 1693 and 1699 respectively. Caldara’s Op. 1 Trio Sonatas are characterized by their contrasting use of fast and slow movements, those from the second set by their incorporation of dances. Yet Caldara’s melodic gift – which was to serve him so well in his musical posts in various Italian states, in Barcelona, and as vice-Kapellmeister at the Imperial Court in Vienna – is already evident in Beyer and Schayegh’s selection from his instrumental publications; the composer was also already noted as a virtuoso of the cello – and he also played the violin and keyboard, and the awareness of all these instruments is greatly evident in these trio sonatas…”