The Tallis Scholars Sing Tudor Church Music
This wonderful recording by the Tallis Scholars proposes a fascinating journey through Tudor church music written by four composers: John Browne, John Taverner, William Cornysh and Christopher Tye. This is only the first part of a collection that includes a second volume with the same title and two other albums collecting works by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd and it is dedicated to earlier works by Tudor composers.
Little is known about the outstanding English composer of the first years of the Tudor dynasty, John Browne, and also the little information handed down to us does not identify him for sure. He was particularly appreciated for his contrapuntal assurance. His link with the royal family can be assumed as he presumably composed the Stabat iuxta Christi crucem (one of the works recorded in this album) for Queen Elizabeth after the death of her elder son Arthur, Prince of Wales. Browne employed as cantus firmus the tenor of Edmund Turges’s song From stormy winds, composed in occasion of the departure of the young Prince of Wales for his residence in Ludlow in 1501 and this detail is another reason to suppose Browne’s proximity to the court.
John Taverner’s life is equally lacunose and the few references collected in the past does not stand a closer examination. The first sure information about him is that he was a lay clerk of the choir of the collegiate church at Tattershall in 1524 and 1525. In this year, he moved to Oxford to become first instructor of the choristers of the choir of Cardinal College at request of the Bishop of Lincoln, suggesting that his musical skills were already well known. It is in this period that he wrote the greater part of his music. The Cardinal College was strictly connected with Cardinal Wolsey and, when he fell into disgrace, the institution followed his fate. Taverner resigned and probably went back to his native Lincolnshire, were he became a lay clerk and instructor of the choristers in the parish church of St Botolph, Boston. In his later years, his interest in music seemed to fade. His mass The Western Wind, recorded in this album, is based on variations on a secular tune in a way that reminds of Lutheran practices rather than the traditional English way which was more common at the time of its composition.
William Cornysh was a true Renaissance man as he is remembered as a composer, poet and actor. He served at court from 1493 onwards (in this year the first payments on his behalf are recorded), was Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and therefore attended King Henry VII’s burial and the coronation of his successor, Henry VIII, and became Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal in 1509. He organized court entertainments, but his theatrical works are unfortunately lost, and followed Henry VIII during his visits to France (included the famous meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold), when he conducted the Chapel Royal with great praises. Cornysh contributed to the flourishing of the repertory of the secular partsong, a genre highly influenced by the medieval carol, and an immense number of sacred works are attributed to him.
Christopher Tye belonged to the next generation of Tudor composer, as he was probably born in 1505 and died in 1573. The first reference about him is dated 1536, the year when he took his degree in Cambridge, and the next year he became a lay clerk at King’s College, but further information about him is scarce, although it is known that he was appointed Magister choristarum at Ely Cathedral and that he was tutor to Prince Edward, Henry VIII’s son. Few verses in which the young Prince commended Tye have been handed down to our days: «I oft have heard my father merrily speake/In your high praise, and thus his highnesse saith,/”England one God, one truth, one doctor hath/For musick’s art, and that is Doctor Tye, /Admired for skill in musick’s harmony”». His music has suffered heavily from the loss of manuscript sources and only half of the known works has been preserved intact and the others are fragmentary or partially lost. The Tallis Scholars recorded his mass The Western Wind, a work that has many resemblances with the previous, homonymous mass composed by Taverner (and with that of another composer, Sheppard, not included in the present selection) because this too shows the influence of Lutheran musical settings. It is than open to question if the three composers have worked together, maybe at the Chapel Royal or in Lincolnshire, but this is just a hypothesis.
As for the performance of the works of these composers presented in the recording, it is so fine and inspired to come up to the expectations. The Tallis Scholars are indeed a refined ensemble and their approach to this luminous, blissful music (so different from the thoughtful production spreading beyond the Channel at the same time) gives prominence to moments of ineffable serenity and to a confident and elegant expression of joy, sometimes more elaborated and spiritually elevated as in the Gloria of Tye’s mass The Western Wind, some others more direct, as in Browne’s Salve Regina or in the Credo of the other mass The Western Wind, by Taverner.
What is also admirable is the assurance with which the trebles approach their extremely high part that gives to these works a sparkling colour and contributes to strengthening the message of joyful participation rather than of ecstatic abandonment.
The first volume of The Tallis Scholars Sing Tudor Church Music, together with the other albums devoted to the same period, is definitely a little treasure of musical gems.