Recorded in the Chapel of Merton College in Oxford to celebrate the Silver Anniversary of The Tallis Scholars.
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Born in Ghent, Jacob Obrecht, occupied the greater part of his musical career in the employment of churches in his native land and, despite his great musical talent, only briefly managed to acquire a position in the Italian courts. In 1485 he was dismissed from the Cathedral at Cambrai for his inadequate care of the choirboys and for keeping poor finances (in that year the chapter accepted some of his compositions to cover the deficit of his accounts). Owing to ill health Obrecht retired in 1500 and remained largely in Bergen op Zoom. In 1504 he travelled to Ferrara, where in the following year he died of the plague. Obrecht’s musical style is both inventive and spontaneous, and his control of immense sound structures is masterful. The sumptuous six-part Salve regina is constructed on a monumental scale and stands among the most beautiful settings of this popular prayer. The work is thought to have been composed in the 1480s and is interspersed with short sections of the traditional plainsong melody, which liturgically is designed to be sung after Compline from Advent to Candelmas.
Obrecht’s genius was second only to that of Josquin des Prés. A pupil of Ockeghem, Josquin spent his early adulthood as a singer in Milan Cathedral before serving as a member of the Papal Chapel. From the 1490s he was in the service of Duke Ercole d’Este at Ferrara, and from 1503 spent his last years as Provost of the collegiate church at Condé-sur-l’Escaut, where he is buried. Josquin’s musical career was a long and productive one, and his music survives in greater quantity than that of any other composer of the period (with the possible exception of Isaac). The four-part Gaude Virgo Mater Christi is thought to be a small-scale study for his Ave Maria [virgo serena], which was chosen by Petrucci to stand at the head of his first published collection of motets in 1502. Absalon fili mi, a meditation on David’s lament, is perhaps Josquin’s best known work and has been long held to be a classic example of his mature style. Its authorship, however, is now uncertain, and Joshua Rifkin has proposed Pierre de la Rue (c.1460-1518) as a possible composer.
The music of John Taverner represents the final flowering of musical development in the pre-Reformation English church. Nothing is known of Taverner’s early musical training but it is likely that he spent his youth in or near the town of Boston, Lincolnshire. By 1524 he was a lay clerk at the collegiate church of Tattershall, and in the following year accepted the post of Informator in Thomas Wolsey’s new foundation at Oxford, Cardinal College (now Christ Church). Taverner left Oxford in 1530 and spent his remaining years employed at the parish church in Boston, where he seems to have abandoned composition. The majority of Taverner’s surviving music was probably written for his choir at Tattershall, especially his large-scale antiphons among which Gaude plurimum is arguably his finest. The work incorporates many of the structural elements inherent in earlier antiphon settings such as are found in the Eton choirbook: each section begins with passages scored for two or three voices which drive towards a climactic entry for full choir. However, Taverner’s stylistic methods are more refined. Imitation plays an essential part in construction and, still more evident is the sense of strong harmonic direction and resolution.
Such grand-scale music-making became obsolete with the Henrician dissolutions of the 1530s and 40s, though musicians were now able to experiment with new forms and styles. The English anthem was born, and Continental influence became more prominent in the works of the next generation of composers. With the accession of Mary I in 1553, music continued to be set to Latin texts and psalm-motets had become a popular alternative to the earlier votive antiphon. William Mundy was one of the first exponents of this new musical form. Adolescentulus sum ego takes its text from Psalm 118, vv. 141-44. Sections of the same psalm were also set by Tye, White and Parsons, thus suggesting the possibility that these works were composed in collaboration and intended to be performed in succession (such is the case in the setting of In exitu Israel which Mundy had composed jointly with Sheppard and Byrd). Devotional antiphons were still being produced, although the choice of subject matter needed to be carefully considered. In commenting on the use of particular texts in the reformed English church, one anonymous author stated that
rotton rythmes of popery, and supersticious invocation or praying unto Saints doth not give greater cause of vomit to any man than to myself... so that I thus far agree with the greatest adversaryes of our profession, that I would not admit any other matter than is contained in the written word of God, or consolable there unto.
Still, the last of the great Tudor antiphons were being produced as late as the 1550s. Perhaps the best known example from this period is Tallis’s Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater, which with John Sheppard’s Gaude Virgo christiphera seems to have been the inspiration for Mundy’s monumental Vox Patris caelestis. Here Mundy’s harmonic and melodic eloquence shines, representing a final tribute to one of the most versatile musical forms ever conceived for the church in Tudor England.
With Mary’s death in 1558 the Latin rite was officially defunct in England. Nonetheless, the young Elizabeth (herself a skilled musician) maintained Catholic sentiments and encouraged the continued composition of Latin-texted music, even though such works could never be officially sung in the church. In 1575 Elizabeth granted Thomas Tallis and William Byrd full privilege and licence for twenty-one years ‘to imprint any and so many as they will of set songe or songes in partes, either in English, Latine,... or other tongues that may serue for musicke either in Churche or chamber’. The collection, containing seventeen pieces by each composer, was reputedly presented to the Queen on Accession Day in 1575 on 17 November in the seventeenth year of her reign. Tallis’s selection was apparently retrospective, with Salvator mundi given pride of place at the head of the publication. Byrd’s contribution included the monumental Tribue, Domine, the longest of his early works, which is printed in three sections successively in the Cantiones. Here Byrd expertly sustains variety and contrast throughout by employing homophony, antiphonal writing and two-, three-, five- and six-part polyphony, while paying close attention to the meaning and expression of the text, as he invariably did in his later Latin works.
David Skinner © 1998