Directed by Philip Cave, celebrated choir Magnificat specializes in the restoration and performance of neglected choral masterpieces of the 16th and 17th centuries. Here they continue their much-lauded exploration of Tudor Latin sacred music with ‘The Tudors at Prayer’, which includes music by Taverner, Tallis, Mundy, White and Byrd.
The highlight is Mundy’s towering Vox Patris caelestis, one of the greatest glories of the Catholic period of Tudor music. Byrd’s heartfelt setting of Tribue, Domine plus a premiere recording of White’s Tota pulchra es, and his sublime Psalm-setting Domine, quis habitabit? III are further stand-out moments.
Other recommended albums
The Tudors at Prayer brings together eight compositions from mid-sixteenth-century England, a period particularly rich in Latin sacred music, but also a time of vast religious and political upheaval. Although this collection of music spans barely more than a generation—the earliest work was probably composed in the 1530s and the latest in the 1570s—it is hard to imagine the changes that took place in English society (and by extension, English musical culture) during those forty years. The musical world of early-sixteenth-century England was in many ways still a medieval one, where first-rate musicians such as Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) were employed by wealthy monasteries to adorn their worship (much to the dismay of high-minded Renaissance humanists, most notably Erasmus, who considered this a waste of time and money). When the dust had settled after several decades of reformations and counter-reformations, England had become a moderate Protestant country with a rather austere liturgy in English, entirely stripped of old shrines and monasteries and saints’ days and popular devotions. If a group of foreign visitors to Canterbury Cathedral in 1530 had returned to hear evensong there in 1570, they would have found the whole thing almost unrecognizable.
It is surprising to discover that ornate Latin-texted polyphony still managed to survive through all these changes. Even as church services were cut down, restored and manipulated in countless ways, English musicians went on composing vocal music for their own enjoyment. They never stopped writing freely composed pieces on freely chosen texts—what we would now call motets. Much of this music owes its existence (and its survival) to the ongoing taste for elaborate singing during the English Renaissance, even at moments when it was not needed in church. Far from disappearing, if anything, the Latin motet became even more popular as a canvas for composers seeking to exercise their creativity without being tied to official liturgical texts. It was the most cosmopolitan of musical genres and it is no coincidence that Tallis and William Byrd (c1540-1623) chose a motet book to make their respective debuts in the international printing trade in 1575.
Other musical forms evolved, too: the votive antiphon, which featured so prominently prior to the Reformation, enjoyed a (brief) resurgence during the mid-century reign of Mary Tudor; the contemporaneous emergence of the psalm-motet as an important feature of English music may also reflect a desire for continuity in textual and musical practice, given the stylistic similarities between many votive antiphons and psalm settings. In the face of political and religious turmoil, these varied forms of Latin-texted music were cultivated in academic lodgings, underground Catholic circles, noble households and other places where people had an ongoing respect for musical tradition.
William Mundy (c1529-1591) belonged to a distinguished musical family that was active in London for almost a century. Vox Patris caelestis was composed in the 1550s, during the revival of the Marian votive antiphon tradition that had flourished some fifty years earlier, and is one of the great monuments of Tudor music by any reckoning. The text is a florid elaboration by the English poet and music collector William Forrest on a passage (‘Tota pulchra es’) from the Song of Songs. It offers a long series of invocations to the Virgin, speaking evocatively of ‘flowering vines’ with their ‘heavenly ambrosial scent’. In fact, as John Milsom has shown, it may have been composed for the accession of Queen Mary I in 1553, which featured lavish musical celebrations during a ‘Pageant under a Vine’.
Mundy divides the piece into three major sections, each comprising three distinct subsections. He diverges from the mainstream of the older votive antiphon model by not including a cantus firmus, though the work is still modally anchored and tonally conservative. All nine sections cadence on D major, and rather than focusing on tonal development, Mundy instead devotes his energies to building up complexity through other means. He uses quite unusual combinations of voices, including a triple gymel (a pair of divided equal voices) between treble, mean and bass in the eighth section (‘Veni ad me, Assuerum verum…’), and finishing with a full-choir invocation to the Virgin and a final Amen on the grandest possible scale. Notwithstanding this musical architecture, the varied scoring and direct appeal to the Virgin combine to imbue the work with a highly personal devotional character. This effect appears not to have been lost on the scribe who copied out Vox Patris caelestis; a somewhat cynical professional musician and hoarder of old repertory, he could not resist inscribing this one piece with ‘Laus Deo’ (praise be to God).
A contemporary of Mundy, Robert White (c1538-1574) was a promising young musician whose life was cut short by a plague epidemic in London. His colleague Robert Dow, who made a personal copy of White’s motets, left an epitaph for him in the manuscript: ‘Greatest glory of our muses, White: you perish, but your muse remains for ever’. Like Mundy, White also set ‘Tota pulchra es’, a colourful text that was traditionally applied to the Virgin Mary. And like Mundy’s Vox Patris caelestis, this piece shows the most unrestrained side of English devotion to the Virgin Mary—and perhaps also to her royal namesake. White’s setting is for six voices in a rather backward-looking style, with the plainsong melody always present in the baritone part and a relatively wide vocal range (F-g’’). The effect is expansive and lyrical, in contrast with the denser texture and continuous points of imitation that feature so prominently in many of White’s psalm-motets.
John Taverner (c1490-1545) is the earliest composer featured on this recording, but his contribution is one of the most ‘modern’. Quemadmodum desiderat cervus sets the first two verses of Psalm 42—‘Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks’—though it was copied into an Elizabethan household manuscript as an instrumental piece and was only reunited with its text in recent years. Although six voices are employed, there is none of the elaborate filigree we hear in some of Taverner’s earlier works; the sound is rich, uniform, tightly organized and more reminiscent of up-to-date continental music than the wandering gothic tracery of much early Tudor polyphony. It could have been sung at the Sistine Chapel under Palestrina’s direction without attracting many raised eyebrows.
Where Quemadmodum desiderat cervus sets the first two verses of a psalm, Taverner’s younger contemporaries generally preferred to set whole psalms to music—or, in some cases, a section of the unusually long Psalm 119. Both White and Mundy wrote a number of these psalm-motets. This music was linked to the European Renaissance taste for learned humanist motets and it appealed to a wide variety of musicians and connoisseurs on all sides of the Elizabethan religious controversies. A striking family portrait from the middle of the sixteenth century by the anonymous painter now known as the Master of the Countess of Warwick shows a group of young English children holding open musical part-books with a polyphonic psalm setting by Josquin des Prez.
Nearly every mid-century English composer followed in Josquin’s footsteps by composing at least a handful of psalm-motets; Adhaesit pavimento, Adolescentulus sum ego and Domine, quis habitabit? III were all part of this distinctive tradition. The style of Mundy’s psalm-motets has little in common with that of Vox Patris caelestis. Rather than exploiting contrasting passages scored for a variety of voices, both Adhaesit pavimento and Adolescentulus sum ego rely instead on through-composed imitative polyphony that is deftly woven into a dense six-part fabric. The mastery of such diverse idioms, reflecting an awareness of contemporary musical styles associated with continental composers of the time, strongly suggests that Mundy deserves to be more widely appreciated as a leading composer of the English Renaissance. This was recognized by Dow, who extolled the composer’s virtues thus:
Tallis and his student Byrd continued the long tradition of Latin motets in England. When Queen Elizabeth I gave them a national monopoly on music printing in 1575, they thanked her by publishing a book of over thirty motets and dedicating it to her as their ‘first fruits’. The book, Cantiones sacrae, was dedicated to the queen with a promise that it would prove the superiority of English music on ‘foreign soil’. Suscipe, quaeso Domine and Tribue, Domine are the real showpieces of their book, featured near the end, and both Tallis and Byrd chose unusual texts from the Church Fathers that had little to do with the usual English Renaissance psalms and invocations to the Virgin. In a time of fierce religious debates, these two composers seem to have been looking back to the age of at least nominally undivided Christianity.
The words of Tribue, Domine are taken from a well-known book of meditations attributed to Augustine, which circulated widely on both sides of the sectarian divide in Renaissance England and even appeared in a manuscript linked to Queen Elizabeth I herself. Although Byrd was the younger composer, his contribution here is the more archaic one, with the abrupt and exuberant changes of register common in earlier Tudor music. Joseph Kerman suggests that ‘Byrd’s formal model for Tribue, Domine was the votive antiphon, whose proliferating sectional layout of semichoir and full sections served earlier Tudor composers as their main means of attaining breadth and grandeur’. Indeed, Byrd appears to be experimenting with textures by alternating the scoring between ‘full’ and ‘verse’ sections—a technique that he would employ to great effect in subsequent works, such as his masterful setting of Infelix ego.
Flexible scoring and varied combinations of voices also characterize Tallis’ Suscipe, quaeso Domine, a splendidly self-assured piece of counterpoint that would have been at home in any continental motet book. It has been argued that Suscipe, quaeso Domine was composed for the ceremony in which Cardinal Pole absolved England from schism in November 1554. Given the eccentric origins of Tallis’ text (drawn from a penitential work by the sixth-century polymath Isidore of Seville) and the political circumstances of its publication in 1575, Suscipe, quaeso Domine may be more appropriately placed in an Elizabethan context. Tallis crafts a striking work that begins with layered imitation and transitions to a highly flexible full texture for most of the piece, with passages of homophony and semi-chorus scoring to emphasise key points of the text.
By the end of the Elizabethan era, the Latin motet was still beloved but rather old-fashioned. Many composers had turned their attention to elaborate instrumental music, Italian-style madrigals and other up-to-date pursuits. People certainly went on singing (and even composing) motets but the genre was now tinged with nostalgia for a world that was passing away. The sound of Latin-texted polyphony had become, at least for younger musicians, the sound of the irretrievable past. Shakespeare evoked something of this mood, not long after the death of Tallis, with John of Gaunt’s poignant deathbed speech in Richard II:
The setting sun, and music at the close, As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last, Writ in remembrance more than things long past …
Kerry McCarthy © 2014