The English Choral Tradition — May 2007

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Program Notes

The English Choral Tradition

At a time when Italy, Spain, France, and Germany were developing their own special national styles in the field of secular music, England was developing a distinctive style in church music. The complex social and religious situation that followed the Reformation (Henry VIII ’s break with Rome in 1534) had a profound and widespread effect on music. From about the middle of the 15th century to the Reformation, the characteristic style of English church music consisted of a conservative design with florid style. The turn of the 16th century saw an impressive production of large-scale choral music, generally with a cantus firmus (that is, based on a preexisting melody, most often a plainchant melody such as “Loquebantur” on today’s program), in highly ornate counterpoint. The polyphony was luxuriant, forming a characteristically rich tapestry around the original chant. Much of this music is preserved in the Eton choir book (copied 1490–1502), the largest source of English church music from the turn of the 16th century.

The English rulers gave composers of church music a very hard time, changing orders much too often. Henry VIII allowed florid Latin music for his Catholic religious rites. Edward VI (ruled 1547–1553) almost suppressed it by instating the Protestant liturgy, while Mary Tudor (ruled 1553–1558) restored the Roman rite and its music, persecuting the Protestants so cruelly she became known as “Bloody Mary.” Elizabeth I (1558–1603) in turn established the Anglican Church, and under her rule Tallis composed much of his music. Finally, the attempt by James II to reintroduce the Roman liturgy cost him his throne in 1688. Obviously composers had difficult decisions to make as their personal beliefs came into conflict with the “official” liturgy. In fact the topic of their more or less secret religious beliefs always surfaces when discussing composers of the age, such as Thomas Tallis and the great William Byrd.

Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585) was without doubt the greatest English composer of the middle of the 16th century. He served as a lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral and then as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the reigns of four monarchs (Henry VIII , Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth). He was married in his late forties, but no children are known to have been born to the couple. Tallis was among the first to set English words to music for the rites of the Church of England, although most of Program Notes his vocal music was written in Latin. A composer of great contrapuntal skill, his works show intense expressivity and are cast in a wide variety of styles.

Though Tallis learned his trade in the English tradition of florid music, which preserved the independence of individual voices much more than on the Continent, he was often content to compose in an unostentatious manner, relying not on technical display but on the mastery and control born of long experience. In his middle years, he turned to the imitative technique of Josquin des Prez and his followers. Later on, he became more concerned with the association of musical design with the words being set, which had become the leading concern for composers of Italian madrigals a few decades earlier. His music was not expressive in the same literal way as that of composers on the Continent such as Orlando di Lasso. Tallis instead took great care to create melodies that would fit the syntax and the rhythm of the words and express something of the meaning of the text as a whole (as opposed to the Italian word-painting). He was also a shrewd businessman, managing to receive and hold, with William Byrd, the “privilege” (monopoly) of music printing in England. The two composers were very good friends (Tallis was godfather to Byrd’s son), and though it is well known that Byrd never relinquished his Catholic faith, Tallis’s views were more private. His works, however, seem to show that he shared Byrd’s faith. Even though he was a recusant Catholic, Tallis had to compose for whichever sovereign he happened to be serving and so, ironically, he is remembered as one of the earliest composers who wrote Anglican music (during the reign of Edward VI first and then again for Elizabeth at the end of his own life).

Tallis’s most famous composition is without doubt the monumental forty-voice motet “Spem in alium,” which the Choir performed a couple of years ago. Today’s program includes three Latin motets. Of those, two are from the collection Cantiones Sacrae of 1575 that Byrd and Tallis published together.

Loquebantur variis linguis” is an elaborate piece for seven voices, based on a cantus firmus. It is a response for the first Vespers of Pentecost, meaning that the choir and the soloist singing the unadorned chant alternate. This piece is in the tradition started by Taverner (c. 1490–1545) with his “Dum transisset Sabbatum.” This is what is called a choral response, in which solo sections are chanted and the chant for the choir is set as a melody in notes of the same (long) value, here in the tenor, within a polyphonic texture. Tallis wrote six such pieces and at least some of them are from the Elizabethan period. He seems to resist such a strict design, dictated by the shape and length of the chant, by building around it a rhythmically audacious counterpoint, growing in intensity towards the end and with a very lively Alleluia.

Both “O sacrum convivium” and “O nata lux de lumine” were published in the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae of Byrd and Tallis. The hymn “O nata lux de lumine” is almost certainly an Elizabethan piece, for Lauds. It is simple and, as the genre implies, chordal, but not without charm and nobility. It is free, however, of all the liturgical elements of a hymn, such as the quotation of a chant. The motet “O sacrum convivium” is a so-called “psalm-motet,” a fashionable genre in the 1560s. This piece has an interesting history. It started as an instrumental fantasia. Then Tallis adapted it to a variety of English texts (including “I call and cry”), and finally to this text, a Vespers antiphon for Corpus Christi. Since this is the version he published in the 1575 book, it may be considered the definitive one. On the other hand it is also possible that he allowed this version to be published, but he may also have regarded the “I call and cry” as a legitimate piece. Both texts fit the music perfectly. The piece unfolds in a series of successive points of imitation, one for each new phrase. The second portion of the piece is repeated (in ABB fashion), as was becoming the standard in the English anthem.

William Byrd (1543–1623) was also a Catholic who remained faithful to the Church of Rome even though he held high positions in Anglican churches. He produced fine music for the national church, although his works for Rome are of a higher quality. Byrd is regarded as the first of the composers of the “golden age of music” that began in the middle years of Elizabeth I’s reign. A sober and pious man and a Catholic in a Protestant country, he spent most of his professional life playing the organ for the Chapel Royal (from 1570 to 1623). He was a pupil of Tallis, from whom he learned the conservative style and inherited the fondness for cross-relation.

Byrd’s music exhibits great subtlety and flexibility in handling imitative techniques and in manipulating texture, and displays a new expressiveness of melodies together with a new freedom in choosing texts. The shapes of his motives are often suggested by the words he is setting. He avoids madrigalisms and extroverted sorts of word illustration, but his themes are tied closely to the text. Often his motets are longer than the contemporary examples by other composers so that he can spin out his contrapuntal lines in complex and interesting ways.

In 1605 and 1607 Byrd published an impressive collection in two volumes called Gradualia, which contained settings of music for the mass and the office proper—the first such collection since Isaac’s Choralis Constantinus of 1508–17. The volumes contain over a hundred motets for the Catholic year composed in all known techniques. It is unknown what the purpose of such books was since the Catholic mass was forbidden. In this collection there are many short and concise though very nice pieces, such as the sequence “Ave verum corpus” for the feast of the Corpus Christi. This “Ave verum” is a fairly chordal setting, spiced by piquant cross-relations (for example F and F-sharp or B and B-flat sounding side by side) and very expressive harmonies.

Of the other motets on today’s concert, “Miserere mei, Deus,” for five voices and the “Haec Dies” for six voices, are included in the second volume of the Cantiones sacrae (Liber secundus sacrarum cantionum) published in London in 1591. “Laudate pueri Dominum” for six voices is included in the volume he published with Tallis, Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, published in London in 1575. The “Magnificat” for ten voices is the penultimate monumental movement of the Great Service. The only piece in English, the full anthem “O Lord, Make Thy Servant Elizabeth” for six voices, was first published in a 1641 collection, but survives in many manuscripts. The piece is most often chordal but when the text mentions granting the queen a long life the voices engage in a seemingly endless series of imitative entrances to illustrate the concept. A beautiful Amen concludes the piece.

The colossal ten-part “Magnificat” (in English) alternates sections for a smaller group with sections for the entire group, which is divided into the traditional two choruses: the “cantori” and the “decani”. This piece is extremely varied in its musical ideas, starting each new phrase either with a chordal, homophonic section, or, most often, a point of imitation. Depiction of the words is not absent, even though the text has to be dealt with fairly swiftly. For example, at the words “he hath put down the mighty from their seat” the musical phrase drops down anywhere from a fourth to an octave. Conversely “and hath exalted the humble and meek” is set to an ascending line. The Great Service, a masterpiece in seven sections, of which this is the penultimate, followed by another ten-part section, the concluding “Nunc dimittis,” was most likely composed in or after the late 1580s. Some scholars believe that some parts may have been written for some important state occasion, and later the entire mass was completed.

Laudate pueri Dominum” for six voices is an imitative motet in Latin. This longish piece shows Byrd’s enormous inventiveness. Each of the many phrases starts with a fresh idea, which is spun and tossed from part to part. Of the other two motets (besides “Ave verum”), “Miserere mei, Deus” is much more restrained and conservative, not to mention shorter. The music, delightful, begins with two homophonic statements, each of which then opens up into a polyphonic section, and then a third statement opens up into an expansive closing section. The other one, “Haec dies,” on the other hand is a nimble and flighty treatment of the text, which includes a middle section in a lilting triple meter, and an extensive alleluia.

Peter Philips (1560/61–1628) was an English composer and organist though he has often been described as a Flemish composer. He spent most of his adult life in the Spanish Netherlands (Antwerp and Brussels), but he always insisted on describing himself as English. Philips was trained first as a choirboy at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and may have been a student of Byrd. However, unlike Byrd and Tallis, he was a staunch Roman Catholic who had to flee his homeland for the right to be one. He first spent a few years in Rome, absorbing the conservative Counter-Reformation style of Palestrina and Anerio. Then he traveled around Western Europe with his master Lord Thomas Paget, a prominent English Roman Catholic refugee, with whom he eventually ended up in Brussels. In 1597 the Archduke Albert admitted Philips as a member of his household, and he remained in his service till the Archduke’s death in 1621, after which he still remained at the court. Like Byrd, he was extremely versatile, excelling at each genre he tried his hand at. He was prolific and the most published English composer of his time after Byrd. His music, however, sounds much less English and much more Italianate than Byrd’s.

On today’s program there are three motets by Philips. One, “Surgens Jesus,” is from his 1612 collection of five-voice pieces Cantiones sacrae, pro praecipuis festis totius anni et communi sanctorum, published at Antwerp. These pieces are extremely contrapuntal. “Surgens Jesus” exhibits both a contrapuntal and a homophonic section in triple meter, each followed by a rousing alleluia. The other two pieces are from the eight-voice collection Cantiones sacrae, published at Antwerp the next year. Both “O quam suavis est, Domine” and “Ecce vicit Leo” are Italianate, exhibiting Venetian alternatim singing (with the two choirs antiphonally responding to each other) and chordal movement, alternation of duple- and triple-meter sections, each concluding with a long alleluia. The first piece starts with a forceful eight-voice statement, followed by the alternatim sections, and by the meter changes typical of this genre. This piece also shows some sections of brilliant figuration and rhythmic intricacy.

Thomas Weelkes (bapt. 1576–1623) was one of the most gifted of the English madrigalists, and a major composer of English church music. He was very talented and on 1602 was awarded the Bachelor of Music degree from New College, Oxford. However, he moved from one job to another because of his unruliness and because, according to a report to the bishop of Chichester, he was “noted and famed for a comon drunckard and notorious swearer and blasphemer.” The bishop therefore dismissed him.

None of Weelkes’s church music was published in his lifetime. The full anthem “When David Heard” is really a sacred madrigal, and ranks among his finest compositions. Weelkes’s characteristic full texture imparts grandeur to all his best full anthems, and in “When David Heard” he also aimed at a particular poignancy fit for the text. The story of David’s son Absalom is told in II Samuel. Absalom, the son of David King of Israel, kills his half brother (and David’s firstborn) Amnon to avenge the rape of his sister Tamar. Absalom is therefore banished by his father, who later receives him back in Jerusalem, as he realizes he loves his son dearly despite what he did. Eventually Absalom rebels against David and is killed by Joab. The anthem sets the moving words that describe King David’s mourning when he is told of his son’s death and which reflect every parent’s feelings upon the death of a child. The madrigalist in Weelkes is seen in the poignant dissonances, the sighs and descending lines for the weeping, and the almost unison call to the son.

According to many a scholar, after Henry Purcell (1659–95) there were hardly any great English composers till the late 19th century. Today’s program seems to support the claim—following the previous composers come three later ones: Tavener, Wood, and Holst.

Charles Wood (1866–1926) was actually Irish, though he spent most of his life in Cambridge, both earning various degrees from the university and working as organist at Caius. He was one of the first students at the new Royal College of Music, studying with Parry and Stanford. He is known primarily as a composer of Anglican church music. His style has often been described as archaic, as he tended to adopt the contrapuntal and harmonic idioms of later Renaissance music. The 16th-century style is evident also in a series of large-scale anthems he composed, of which “Hail Gladdening Light” of 1919 is the first. It is scored for two SATB choirs. Its two large sections alternate choirs and often exhibit a full eight-part texture, often in homophony. The interest to these ears lies in the close succession of moments that sound like a 16th-century Italian motet and post-romantic, sometimes almost Brahmsian moments.

Gustav Holst (1874–1934) was an English composer whose fame rests almost exclusively on his oft-performed orchestral work The Planets. Like Wood he studied at the Royal College of Music, mainly with Stanford, but also with Parry. There he met and befriended Vaughan Williams, who was to influence him perhaps more than any other person, including his various teachers. At first he was very much under the Wagnerian shadow, though a few years into the new century he became interested in Hindu literature and philosophy. He then started composing pieces that were influenced by this, including some Sanskrit-based works. The “Nunc dimittis” on today’s program comes from his Sanskrit period, but does not exhibit any characteristic related to it. It was composed for and first performed at Westminster Cathedral, on 4 April 1915. The scoring is for eight parts in two choirs of like voices (SSAA and TTBB). Despite many daring and fascinating harmonies it is a fairly conservative and introspective liturgical work.

Sir John Tavener (1944–) is a (living) English composer. He is an organist and a composer of many genres of music. His famous and revolutionary Celtic Requiem of 1969 so impressed the Beatles they recorded it on their Apple label. He has composed many liturgical and sacred works, but also cantatas and operas, song cycles, etc. He is mostly famous for his choral sacred music, especially since the early 1980s. In the 1970s he joined the Orthodox Christian faith, and many of his pieces have reflected that, and some include references, quotes, or techniques derived from Byzantine chant. This is, of course, clothed in some of the modern British choral techniques, such as canons (as in this case), dense harmonies, play with tone color, etc. The “Hymn to the Mother of God” on today’s program is one of two he composed in 1985 on Orthodox hymns, when mourning the death of his own mother. It shows his love of thick and complex harmonies achieved, however, not by contrapuntal means but by a successive layering of parts. It is scored for two six-part choirs. The motion is wholly chordal, as expected of a hymn, but there is nothing conventional about the actual sound achieved. It is a canon between the two choirs, and it is marked “With awesome majesty and splendour.” This piece is a perfect example of the calm and mysticism many of his works exhibit. The text is a hymn in praise of the Mother of God from the liturgy of St. Basil (the Bishop of Caesarea, a 4th century bishop considered a saint by the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches).

Today’s concert offers a panoramic view of English music of the 16th century and later, including both florid and simple styles, Latin motets and English anthems, full and verse anthems, unaccompanied pieces, and compositions with instruments and voices. As you will no doubt notice, English music tends to sound distinctively different from that of the Continent, especially in its stunning harmonies and gorgeously expressive cross-relations and triadic chords. The pungent cross-relations are a typical trait of English music of the Renaissance and Baroque, and were not exported anywhere. The triadic harmony (as opposed to the many perfect intervals of music of the continent) lends this music a unique and very particular beauty which was appreciated at the time and beyond, and which sounds quite modern to our ears.

—© 2007 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D.

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