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Hyperion Records

CDH55056 - Taverner: Western Wynde Mass & other sacred music
CDH55056
(Originally issued on CDA66507)

Recording details: June 1991
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: May 2000
Total duration: 56 minutes 2 seconds

'A definitive performance of this glorious work … superbly recorded' (Classic CD)

'Performed with tonal beauty and stunning, expressive clarity … this CD has a mesmerising impact… vibrantly beautiful' (CDReview)

'Singing, engineering, notes, texts, translations all conform to the high standard set on this label' (Fanfare, USA)

Western Wynde Mass & other sacred music
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Not a great deal is known about the life of John Taverner. He is thought to have been born around 1490 in Lincolnshire, and is first documented in 1525 as a lay clerk at the collegiate church of Tattershall, a musical establishment of some importance. Later that year he was recommended by Bishop Longland of Lincoln for the new post of Informator (choirmaster) at Cardinal College (now Christ Church), Oxford, founded by Cardinal Wolsey and lavishly endowed with a choir of sixteen choristers and twelve ‘clerkes skilled in polyphony’. After overcoming an initial reluctance to leave the security of Tattershall, he accepted this prestigious invitation in time for the formal opening of the College in October 1526. Its glory proved to be short-lived, however, and after Wolsey’s fall from power in 1529 its fortunes and finances soon began to decline. Taverner resigned the post in 1530. For the next seven years his whereabouts are unknown. Possibly he worked as a freelance musician in London, or perhaps he returned directly to Lincolnshire. From 1537 Taverner was in Boston, maybe employed as an agent for Thomas Cromwell, who had been commissioned by Henry VIII to carry out a survey and valuation of the lesser monasteries and friaries prior to their dissolution. There is no truth in the persistent claim that Taverner was a fanatical persecutor in carrying out these duties. The significance of the often-quoted note in the 1583 edition of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments that Taverner came ‘to repent him very much that he had made songs to popish ditties in the time of his blindness’ may well have been exaggerated; Foxe, an ardent Protestant, was writing some forty years after the composer’s death, and the term ‘popish ditties’ remains open to interpretation. On the contrary, there is documentary evidence that Taverner had genuine concern for the welfare of the monks and friars. The assumption that he ceased to compose after leaving Oxford is based on speculation, since a proportion of his output has probably been lost and what has survived is not always easy to date.

Taverner died in 1545 and was buried beneath the famous ‘stump’ of Boston church.

As the undisputed master of his generation, Taverner witnessed and greatly contributed to the final phase in the development of the florid style that had dominated English sacred music since the death of John Dunstable in 1453. If the works of Taverner’s immediate precursor, William Cornysh (died 1523), represent the peak of sheer virtuosity, those of Taverner himself seem to proceed along a rather more serene path regulated as much by harmonic considerations as purely melodic ones.

The music of the generation before Taverner—for instance the unequivocally medieval florid writing of the Eton Choirbook—is the glorious culmination of a predominantly insular culture, developed and sustained in those great choral institutions which had been founded or substantially expanded in the fifteenth century. Some of Taverner’s music remains firmly in this late-medieval tradition as regards form and aesthetic, even if the style is stripped of some of its florid detail. But in other works (presumably the later ones) there is evidence of a growing awareness of contemporary continental features, particularly in the systematic use of imitation, and a tendency towards clarity of texture and simplification of rhythm and line.

The music of Taverner, taken as a whole, represents the final development of the florid late-medieval English style, coupled with the assimilation of new aesthetic and technical features which indicate the growing influence of continental thought and practice. Individual works embody these two facets of Taverner’s music in varying degrees, depending mainly on liturgical form and function, but also, to a certain extent, on their chronological position within the composer’s output.

Votive antiphons were sung as part of the extra-liturgical devotions observed after the late evening service of Compline. Before Taverner’s time these were invariably addressed to the Virgin Mary, but from the late 1520s there was a discernible trend towards the composition of so-called ‘Jesus’ antiphons, and four of Taverner’s surviving antiphons are in this category.

O splendor gloriae, the final sentence of whose text refers to the Trinity, may well have been associated with Cardinal College whose statutes required the daily singing of antiphons to the Trinity and St William of York, as well as the Virgin Mary.

O splendor gloriae is in many ways the finest of Taverner’s large-scale antiphons. Particularly noteworthy are its clarity of texture and extensive use of imitation. So pervasive and systematic is the imitation in some passages that it led one late sixteenth-century copyist to ascribe the work jointly to Taverner and Tye, a view rejected by modern scholars on the grounds of its stylistic consistency. Another ‘progressive’ feature is the occasional repetition of text in the latter part of the piece, reflecting the gradual trend away from an abstract melismatic style towards a more directly expressive ‘Renaissance’ manner. The sectional structure, contrasting reduced ‘soloistic’ combinations with full five-part sections which exploit the high treble compass, is characteristically English in conception, and the work stands as testimony to the vocal and musical accomplishments of pre-reformation choral foundations.

The Te Deum is one of the most ancient hymns of the Christian Church. It was traditionally sung at the end of Matins on Sundays and major feasts, as well as on special occasions of rejoicing or thanksgiving. In view of this it is perhaps surprising that so few polyphonic settings of the Latin version have survived; perhaps the length of the text acted as a deterrent. In performance it was treated in the same way as a psalm, with each side of the choir taking alternate verses, a practice reflected here in the alternation of plainsong and polyphony.

The sectional structure of the text: a hymn to the Trinity, a passage in praise of Christ (‘Tu rex gloriae, Christe’), followed by a short antiphon (‘Aeterna fac’) leading into the final section, entails changes of chant, though not of mode, and these changes are of course retained in the polyphonic setting.

The only source of Taverner’s Te Deum is the set of part-books compiled by the Windsor lay clerk John Baldwin and dated 1581, from which the tenor part is missing. The restoration of this part is a fairly straightforward matter since it carries the chant in regular rhythm in every verse except ‘Aeterna fac …’ where the chant migrates to the bass. We may suppose from the extensive use of imitation, as well as the clarity of the part-writing and text-setting, that this is a late work, perhaps composed after Taverner had left Oxford, though whether it was written for a special occasion and what that occasion might have been we cannot now say. Taverner’s mastery of contrapuntal invention is evident in the variety of material he finds to surround the simple chant melody. The full five-voice texture is used throughout, and the scoring is low, which suggests that an adult choir, without boy trebles, was envisaged.

In common with other large churches, a daily Lady Mass was celebrated at Cardinal College, and several works by Taverner for this liturgy have survived. These include two settings of Alleluias, whose liturgical form requires the alternation of soloist and chorus. Before Taverner’s time it was customary for composers to provide polyphony for those parts of the chant allocated to the soloist—a natural enough course when the performance of polyphony was the preserve of relatively few singers. This arrangement is reversed in a number of Taverner’s works, so that it is the choral part of the chant which is set to polyphony.

In Alleluia. Veni, electa mea Taverner only provided music for the Alleluia and its jubilus or melismatic extension, but it is clear from instructions given in a setting of the same text by Nicholas Ludford (c1480–c1542) that the same polyphony should also be used for the choral part of the verse, ‘speciem tuam’. The performance recorded here conforms to the liturgical practice of Taverner’s time, including the use of two singers for the ‘solo’ portions of the chant. The top voice carries the chant melody, in mostly equal note values, a feature shared by a number of Taverner’s liturgical settings, while the three lower voices, after some initial snatches of imitation, provide a rhythmically animated and varied free counterpoint. Taverner responds to the spirit of the jubilus with a succession of overlapping scale passages which create a fine sense of climax.

The Western Wynde is perhaps the best-known of all Taverner’s masses, partly for the ingenuity and clarity of its structure, but also more especially for its tunefulness. Moreover, it was evidently admired in its own day, since the younger composers Tye and Sheppard, probably in emulation, based masses on the same theme. The melody on which Taverner based his mass is of unknown provenance. It is clearly a secular tune which enjoyed some popularity but which does not occur in any of the few surviving sources of the early sixteenth century. There is a song whose text begins ‘Westron wynde when wyll thow blow’ in a manuscript in the British Library, and although its tune bears some similarities to Taverner’s, these might easily be no more than the common stylistic mannerisms of the period.

The Western Wynde may be the earliest mass composed in England to be based on a secular melody, although the practice had been common on the continent since the time of Dufay. The use of popular tunes in sacred music was advocated by Luther, and this, coupled with some internal stylistic factors, has led to the suggestion that the Mass belongs to Taverner’s Oxford years when he came into contact with advocates of the ‘new learning’. On the other hand, part of the Agnus Dei occurs in keyboard format in a manuscript which may date from as early as 1520, and which seems to have some association with Court circles. If the Mass does date from early in Taverner’s career, its progressive style and originality of design are even more remarkable.

The melody occurs nine times in each of the four movements (the Sanctus-Benedictus being a formal entity). Heard first in the top voice it subsequently moves to the contratenor or bass, while broadly similar changes of scoring and metre occur in each movement. The result is one of the most closely unified of all English cyclic masses. As was customary in England the Kyrie was not set, probably because its text would vary according to the feast or season. Taverner also left out part of the Credo text, from ‘Et in Spiritum sanctum’ to ‘in remissionem peccatorum’—again a peculiarly English practice which has never been satisfactorily explained, although Hugh Benham has suggested that such omissions arise from the early fifteenth-century practice of ‘telescoping’ or overlapping phrases of text, such portions then being abbreviated or even cut out entirely by subsequent copyists.

John Heighway © 2000

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