The Tallis Scholars Sing Tudor Church Music
Tudor Church Music: the Composers
After a wonderful first volume dedicated to Tudor Church Music, the second instalment features sacred works from the middle years of the 16th century, when England witnessed the definitive success of the Reformed faith despite an ephemeral return to Catholicism under Queen Mary. The turbulence of those years exceeded the boundaries of politics and influenced the music production of the three composers of this collection: John Sheppard, Thomas Tallis and Robert White.
The first CD is entirely devoted to John Sheppard (c1515-1558). Sheppard attended Magdalen College, Oxford, until 1548 and joined the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal before 1552, but the precise date is unknown as the Chapel Royal records have a gap from 1547. He supplicated for the degree of Doctor of Music at Oxford University in 1554, but probably it was not awarded to him.
Sheppard asserted that his first compositions dated from 1534 but, if this is true, the earlier part of his production is lost. Many of his works were copied in the five Baldwin partbooks at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1575, and it is very likely that the major part of his surviving music dates from Queen Mary’s reign. Five of his Masses survive and among them there is the Western Wind Mass, the third recorded by the Tallis Scholars in this collection, as the other two (by Taverner and Tye) are part of the programme of the first volume of Tudor Church Music. As the Mass composed by Tye on the same tune, Sheppard’s too seems to be modelled on Taverner’s plan.
Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) was a leading figure of English church music of the 16th century and is remembered in particular for his originality and experimentation. His early life and musical interests are for the most part unknown, but probably he was a chorister of the Chapel Royal, St. James Palace before being appointed organist of a Benedictine priory in Kent (1532). After two short stays in Waltham Abbey (dissolved in 1540) and at Canterbury Cathedral (where he was one of the choristers of the recently expanded choir), Tallis became Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543 and was employed as an organist (though this post was officially recognized not before 1570) as well as a composer.
His versatility, that greatly helped him in the turbulent times in which he lived, allowed him to please the different needs and religious orientations of the four Tudor monarchs he served. His production covered almost every musical genre in fashion during the 16th century and his style was probably influenced not only by the religious matters of his native country, but also by the music of the continent.
In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I granted Tallis, together with William Byrd, the monopoly for polyphonic music for twenty-one years.
Tallis composed music both in Latin and in English, but the three works sung by the Tallis Scholars in this recording are all in Latin: In jejunio et fletu, one of the last compositions that Tallis wrote, O salutaris hostia and O nata lux, probably composed during the Elizabethan period.
Robert White (c1538-1574), son of an organ builder, began his musical career as a chorister at the Trinity College, Cambridge. He received a Bachelorship of Music from Cambridge University in 1560, with the condition to compose a Communion service for the next year. He was subsequently employed as Master of the Choristers at Ely, at Chester Cathedral and finally at Westminster Abbey (in 1570), where he held also the post of organist. White’s style was imitative and his works sometimes reminds of the antiphon of the beginning of the century (as in the case of his settings of Latin psalms), but he was nonetheless very influential in his lifetime. After his death in 1574, he was virtually forgotten, but his production has been widely preserved in the Dow Partbooks.
Tudor Church Music: the Performance
In the second volume of Tudor Church Music, the Tallis Scholars maintain the same level of excellence they reached in the first. They convey very well the idea of the high spirituality of the works by Sheppard, Tallis and White and their approach to English Renaissance music is not detached or hieratical, but gives prominence to the warmth of these extremely refined tunes. Sheppard’s masterpiece, the antiphon Media vita, opens the first of the two CDs of this set with particular effectiveness as the voices blend together with a wonderful effect, repeating itself in the other works by the composer, as in In manus tuas I and II and especially in the Western Wind Mass.
Tallis’s works have a more solemn character, established by the high treble parts, as in O salutaris hostia and O nata lux, but here too luminosity prevails in the Tallis Scholars’s singing and infuses joy and a sense of confidence in those who listen to them.
White is the composer of whom the second volume of Tudor Church Music collects more works after Sheppard. The long and elaborated Magnificat alternated moments of grave meditation to others characterized by lyricism and intimacy, the charming and shorter Regina coeli surprises for the delicacy of its tune, in contrast with the next Christe qui lux es II that is rather gloomy despite its title. The Lamentations, White’s most impressive work, is performed with great skill and inspiration.
Together with the first volume of Tudor Church Music the second double-disc set by the Tallis Scholars can be considered a milestone in the performance of this repertoire and, although it is impossible to pretend that this collection exhausts English Renaissance sacred music, it features some of its most representative composers and their works in one of the most perfect ways.