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Hyperion Records

GIMBX301 - Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Vol. 1

Various recording venues
Produced by Steve C Smith & Peter Phillips
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: October 2010
Total duration: 312 minutes 42 seconds

Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Vol. 1
The Tallis Scholars Finest Recordings, 1980-1989
The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (conductor) Boxed set (at a special price) — Download only  

The first of three volumes featuring The Tallis Scholars' finest recordings, one for each decade, and each offering over five hours of the award-winning performances that helped establish Renaissance Polyphony as one of the great repertoires of western classical music. Volume 1 features recordings released between 1980 and 1989.

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Of all the pieces The Tallis Scholars are asked to sing in concert, Allegri’s Miserere – which we have sung over 350 times throughout the world – is the most in demand. The story of its com­position is a good one, but it would be of much less interest if the music hadn’t been written to be performed in the Sistine Chapel, where the musicians would have been sur­rounded by Michelangelo’s newly painted frescos. I some­times stand on stages before a performance of the Allegri and invite the audience to imagine themselves in the Sistine Chapel, the famous choir gallery halfway up the wall on my left, the soloists grouped there, the highest voice launch­ing the top C into the vault. However dissimilar the actual perfor­mance venue, this image of heaven-on-earth always enhances the experi­ence. Actually to perform in the Sistine Chapel, as we did in 1994, remains the most memorable thing we have ever done.

The story is straightforward enough. The music was written sometime before 1638; by the middle of the eighteenth century it had become so famous that the Papacy forbade anyone to sing it outside the Sistine Chapel, in order to enhance the reputation of the Papal choir. It is alleged that the music finally escaped when Mozart at the age of fourteen wrote it down from memory. That he did this is certain since, even though the actual copy he made does not survive, a letter from his father to his mother describing the incident does. In fact there were other copies of the Miserere outside the Vatican by then, though it was only about the time of Mozart’s visit in 1770 that the music became widely available.

However, just as the Pope had feared, once the Miserere was heard outside the magical confines of the Sistine Chapel, the music was found to lose its power to astonish. The problem with any performance of it, then as now, is that what Gregorio Allegri himself composed is simple and plain. Everything depends on the embellish­ments which are added to Allegri’s chords. There was a tradition of improvising amongst the Papal singers which no other group of singers could match, so in a way the fact that copies of the music escaped the confines of the Vatican didn’t make much difference to the fame or develop­ment of the piece: one still had to go to the Sistine Chapel to hear it sung to its fullest potential. It seems likely that the embellishments got more and more effective as the decades passed until by the end of the nineteenth century the best of them had also been written down and become part of the composition. By then they included the high C which has so characterized the piece in recent times.

We present here our landmark 1980 recording of the Allegri, with which we set up Gimell Records thirty years ago. (Although it was originally released as an LP on EMI’s Classics for Pleasure label it was paid for by the fledgling Gimell and Gimell who subsequently released it on CD.) The soloist, Alison Stamp, sang all the solo verses with the same embellishments, as had been the custom with performances for many decades and which continues to be the standard version. Also following the practice of many decades we sang the chant verses to Tone 2. This procedure was followed exactly on our filmed performance, in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 1994, available on DVD (The Tallis Scholars Live in Rome). However our third recording, made in 2005, is slightly different, both in its chant and its solo embellishments. The result can be heard on the third volume in this series.

England has never produced a greater composer than William Byrd. For range of expression he towered above his contemporaries, with only Tallis, already middle-aged when Byrd was born, in the same category of achievement. It stands to reason therefore that for a group such as The Tallis Scholars, dedicated to exploring Renais­sance polyphony, Byrd’s music has been central. We have made two discs entirely devoted to him; included his Tribue, Domine on our Live in Oxford collection; included his Lullaby on our Christmas Carols and Motets anthology; and made a BBC TV programme titled Playing Elizabeth’s Tune exploring his life and work, now available on a Gimell DVD. His music has featured in over a third of our 1,700 concerts.

Anyone listening to Byrd’s church music will be struck by the fundamental difference in out­look between his Protestant and his Catholic writing. The former has English words and a style which, at least in theory, was simple enough to ensure that those words could be heard; the latter has Latin words coupled to an elaborate compo­si­tional method which referred back to the kind of music the Reformation had hoped to put a stop to.

Although it is true that this division between simple and complex was not as firmly main­tained by Byrd’s time as it has been in Tallis’s younger days (Queen Elizabeth was less doctrin­aire than her predecessors), it still explains why the two repertoires do not resemble each other. The message of the Latin-texted Masses, for example, seems to be directed inwards, towards contemplation through melody, suitable for a family circle; which contrasts with the manner of the Anglican Great Service, where the lines push outwards through studied declamation of the texts, suitable for performance before a big crowd.

Nothing is more essentially Catholic than settings of the Mass, a point which would not have been lost on Elizabeth I’s secret police, dedicated as they were to tracking down and harassing believers in the old religion. No one had set these texts in England since Queen Mary’s reign some decades before (and would not do so again for three hundred years), so Byrd’s three settings – for three, four and five voices – stand isolated in time. But the really daring part of the story is that he published this music, admittedly in small volumes without title-pages, but with his name clearly given. Having taken such risks it is not surprising to find that the music itself is deeply expressive. The four-part Mass is probably the earliest of the set, almost certainly written in 1592; the three-part seems to have come next, using just alto, tenor and bass voices. The five-part Mass was written last, probably by 1595, and seems the most mature of the three, both in the confidence with which Byrd handled his texts and in remaining within ever more focused boundaries: the Kyrie and Gloria are shorter and more closely argued than in the four-part, whereas the final passage in the Credo – from ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’ to the end – is substantially longer, which gives a better balance to the movement as a whole. There is a sense that the four-part acted as a model for the others, which Byrd improved upon where he could, with the result that his five-part Mass is one of the most convincingly argued, as well as sonorous, achievements in all his music. The repetition of the words ‘Agnus Dei’ in the final movement, for example, is unforgettably powerful.

Byrd’s justly famous Ave verum corpus belongs to the world of the Masses, having been published in the 1605 Gradualia but probably written in the 1590s. Like the Masses it was written for recusant choirs to sing, and similarly aims to create a rapt, almost mystical atmos­phere. The text, which dates from the fourteenth century and takes the form of a Eucharistic hymn, is a meditation on the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Mass, a belief central to Catholic teaching. The way Byrd set the words ‘O dulcis, o pie, o Jesu fili Mariae’ unmistakably shows the depth of his faith.

Settings of the Requiem Mass are among the most frequent requests for concert music. This may seem unlikely, given the subject matter, but in fact it is just that subject matter which makes them so compelling. There is a drama inherent in the text which never fails to move audiences, having, in the first place, brought out the best in the composer. It is not a modern kind of drama such as we are used to seeing in the cinema or on television, but rather of the opposite: of the light which is shining on the deceased (whose body would have been present in the original performances), of the immediacy of heaven, of the peace which death will bring. Put in words this may sound a bit far-fetched, but from the split second that the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’ chant is heard, every listener is inevitably transported. It is a classic instance of the power of music over every other art-form to communicate without reserve.

This drama gradually moves through different stages as the music proceeds. The essential mood is the one of the opening – long-held chords inviting the contemplation of eternal rest. This is the Requiem’s alternative to the atmosphere of desperation, noise and betrayal which underpins so many television thrillers. It returns at regular intervals – in the Gradual, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, through the promise of perpetual light in the Communion – but is interrupted in the Offertory and the Responsory by the thought of what will happen if Christ does not deliver the departed soul from the pains of hell. In every setting the ‘essential mood’ becomes unbearably intensified in these passages, though the musical style may not change very much. One recoils from the ‘poenis inferni’ (the ‘pains of hell’), the ‘ore leonis’ (the ‘lion’s mouth’), the ‘dies irae, calamitatis et miseriae’ (the ‘day of wrath, calamity and woe’). Indeed the Responsory represents a mini-drama within the whole, piling agony on agony as the pace of the music quickens by alternating brief chant passages with abbreviated polyphony. But in both the Offertory and the Responsory calm is restored by the idea of light: ‘let Saint Michael bring them forth into the holy light’ in the Offertory, and ‘lux perpetua’ (‘light perpetual’) in the Responsory.

The main reason why Victoria’s six-voice Requiem is one of the greatest masterpieces of the entire Renaissance period is that this mood perfectly summed up the composer’s view of life and death. There was no better text for a committed Catholic priest to set. In doing so Victoria created a sound-world which, although it was not original, gained a dimension not imagined before. In fact the Requiem (or Missa pro defunctis) had long been a favourite text of Iberian composers, from the late fifteenth-century setting of Pedro de Escobar onwards. This continued through the sixteenth century with, in particular, two versions by Morales, through to the High Renaissance and the setting by Guerrero amongst others. And by the early years of the seventeenth century the school of composers based in Évora, Portugal, were making their own contribution.

Victoria wrote his Requiem for the funeral in 1603 of the Dowager Empress Maria, daughter of Charles V, wife of Maximilian II, mother of two emperors and sister of Philip II of Spain. For some years Victoria had been her chaplain. The music was published in 1605 in a print which contained nothing other than the movements associated with the funeral service, though some of these were extra to the normal sequence. In particular Victoria included the four-voice Taedet animam meam and the six-voice Versa est in luctum, though no one is entirely sure when these would have been sung. We omit the Taedet here not least because its style is very different from that of the Requiem proper, but include the Versa est in luctum as a postlude. All the music recorded here is therefore scored for SSATTB, with the second soprano part carrying the chant cantus firmus for most of the time. This may not be fully audible to the naked ear, since it often disappears into the surrounding part-writing which at times moves as slowly as the chant itself. Victoria himself printed most of the unaccompanied chant incipits to be heard on this recording, though the editor we consulted, Bruno Turner, provided the short second ‘Agnus Dei’ and the final ‘Requiescant in pace’.

In recent years it has become more and more apparent to me that Tallis was one of the greatest, and most competent, experimenters in the history of European Renaissance music. Who else at that time was able to write a forty-part motet of the highest quality and four-part syllabic anthems so beautiful that they effectively established a new school of composition? Who else in the High Renaissance was both interested and capable of writing music of the kind of mathematical complexity which Tallis shows in his seven-voice Miserere, while also finding new ways of deploying the English high treble voice, traditionally associated with Latin texts, as he does to English words in Blessed are those that be undefiled? The range of his achievement is simply unique.

Part of the explanation for this range of achievement is that Tallis lived through one of the most turbulent periods in English religious history, and in doing so had to write in the musical style of the moment. For the Catholics this was elaborate music, with Latin words and big sonorities. For the Protestants it was, at first, very simple music with English words, so syl­labic that every syllable could be clearly heard by the congregation; and then, in Elizabeth I’s reign, a kind of relaxed simplicity, a halfway house, in which the ideal was both that the words could be heard clearly and also that the music should be interesting. By virtue of being a supreme crafts­man as well as an inspired composer, Tallis was able to meet all these con­flicting require­ments without seeming to be fake.

So outstanding is Spem in alium that it still seems impossible that one mind without a computer could have managed it. To write for forty voices which do not repeat themselves in consecutive motion and not to lose control of the whole colossal edifice, is to set a challenge which even the Art of Fugue scarcely rivals. The actual compositional style of it is slightly blurred between those characteristics implied by the Catholic and Elizabethan styles described above – sometimes imitative between (some of) the parts, sometimes setting the text syllabically, never dealing in the unrestrained melismas of much of his purest Catholic music – and so it is not fully established whether Tallis wrote it for Queen Mary or Elizabeth I (both of whom celebrated their fortieth birthdays whilst on the throne) or for some more abstract reason, perhaps to do with the Biblical number 40. But for us in our modern terms, as for Tallis himself, Spem remains the ultimate technical challenge – supremely difficult to bring off, supremely rewarding when one comes near.

Sancte Deus is a classic example of Tallis’s Catholic style, illustrating what I mean above by ‘unrestrained melismas’. A melisma is a melodic line which only uses one syllable, like the ‘A’ of Amen, allowing the composer’s imagination to fly free of text-setting. This essentially abstract way of thinking was admired by the pre-Reformation Catholics, and needless to say was particularly objected to by the Protestants. The Salvator mundi settings (the second much less famous than the first) are Elizabethan and so more compact; but Gaude gloriosa is one of the most elaborate Catholic compositions of the entire period. Unlike Spem it is colossal in length rather than height, using the nine exclamations of ‘Gaude’ in the text to work up a construction which is essentially architectural. The music flows from one scoring to another to yet another, never using more than six voices at any given moment, but with such an exquisite control of melody and sense of overall direction that the final pages feel as if the listener has just completed the journey of a lifetime. It comes as no surprise that Gaude gloriosa was influential – William Mundy based his Vox Patris caelestis on it – and would have been more so if the Catholic style hadn’t been so soon overturned by Elizabeth’s accession.

The seven-voice Miserere nostri is both a demonstration of technical skill, and, in its ‘music of the spheres’ way, possessed of an unearthly beauty. It is a canon six in two with a free tenor, which is to say there are two canonic melodies, one sung by the two top parts which is easily audible, while the other is shared between four of the other voices. This second canon has its four contributors starting at the same time, but going off at different speeds (the first counter­tenor has the model melody which the second countertenor sings in double augmentation, the second bass sings this melody inverted and augmented, and the first bass has it inverted and in triple augmentation). Both this piece and Loquebantur variis linguis are scored for SSAATBB and are probably Elizabethan.

All the remaining pieces were written in Tallis’s most Protestant period, during the reign of Edward VI (1547–1553). Nothing could be further removed from the glories of Spem or Gaude gloriosa. Gone are the melismas, the Latin texts, the interweaving of the lines in polyphony. The accent is now on simplicity and comprehension – hence the English texts and the chordal style which was designed to make the words audible. One may think one knows what Tallis must have thought of this clipping of his wings, but at least he was not a man to sulk. His craftsmanship enabled him to adapt swiftly to the new realities and in a matter of a year or two he wrote some of the best-known and best-loved Anglican music there has ever been. Not all these tiny masterpieces are as famous as If ye love me, but they all bear repetition, as Vaughan Williams thought when he based his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis on the third Tune for Archbishop Parker.

The Tallis Scholars have recently undertaken to record all of Josquin’s Masses, a decision which was partly reached as a result of the success of our 1986 recording of the Missa Pange lingua and the Missa La sol fa re mi, our first Josquin disc. Since then we have gone on to record eight more of the available sixteen or seventeen Masses accredited to Josquin, bringing us within sight of a series which will have spanned our career to date. Although not as famous as the Missa Pange lingua, the Missa La sol fa re mi is in many ways just as complete a vehicle for displaying Josquin’s genius: yet another vari­ation on the technique of keeping four voices constantly alive, constantly moving.

La sol fa re mi, as its name implies, is based on the solmization of notes which these syllables represented in the medieval scale: A, G, F, D and E. Virtually the whole Mass is derived from this single five-note phrase, which may be clearly heard in different note-lengths and occasionally in different pitches in one or other of the parts. It is mostly found in the tenor (which in fact does not differ significantly in tessitura from the alto part). To write an entire Mass-setting which strictly retains the statement of five notes throughout as a kind of very abrupt cantus firmus is an astonishing feat of inventiveness. Josquin had tried out the same technique in an earlier Mass entitled Faisant regretz (based on ‘fa re mi re’) but had there allowed himself the opportunity of transposing the ostinato up and down by step, a procedure which was commonly followed by other composers of the time, like Obrecht and Isaac. The technique of La sol fa re mi, on the other hand, was sophisticated and rare.

However it was not Josquin’s idea in the first place to use these notes. According to the Swiss music theorist Henricus Glareanus, writing in 1547, they originated in mimicry of an unknown potentate who used to send away importunate suitors with the words ‘Lascia fare mi’ (‘Leave it to me’). Whether this is true or not, a number of popular songs of the time were written around the phrase. Apart from basing the tenor on it almost exclusively, Josquin was able to lend it to the other parts in his Mass-setting by the technique of initial imitation, for instance in the ‘Christe’ and first ‘Hosanna’. The ‘Pleni sunt’ is imitative throughout. Only once (in the bass part at the end of the ‘Christe’) is the ostinato transposed to begin on D (subsequently necessitating a B flat). Otherwise, in more than two hundred repetitions, it starts on A or E. Perhaps the finest moment comes at the very end of the ‘Agnus Dei’ (I and III) where the note-lengths of the ostinato become shorter and shorter as the mystical nature of the music intensifies.

Clemens non Papa & Crecquillon
The music of Jacob Clemens has long been repre­sented on Tallis Scholars’ concert pro­grammes and on our Summer School courses by virtue of the popularity of his seven-voice motet Ego flos campi. This gem of a motet seems to be known to everybody these days, though this was hardly the case when we recorded it in 1987. Nonetheless it does encapsulate Clemens’s particular style: introverted, contemplative, creating a mystical atmosphere by the constant repetition of material while alternating intensely argued polyphonic passages with chords of great beauty. Ironically the equally impressive eight-voice Pater peccavi shows just these same characteristics and yet has been shown, since 1987, to have been written by one of Clemens’s close contemporaries, Thomas Crecquillon. The confusion of author is not surprising.

Jacob Clemens (called Clemens non Papa) was one of the later representatives of the school of Flemish composers, who collectively so dominated European music in the Renaissance period. In the hierarchy of that school he was of the fourth generation alongside Gombert and Crecquillon, the previous generations being represented by Dufay; Ockeghem and Obrecht; Josquin and Isaac; with Lassus and de Monte yet to come as the fifth and last. Unlike many of his colleagues who were open to all the innovations of their time, Clemens remained a conservative figure, preferring to continue with the intro­verted, reflective style of composition which so well suited his predecessors, and resisting the increasingly humanistic style of the Italians. Although it was the fashion amongst Flemish musicians to study and work in Italy, there is no evidence that Clemens ever did. This lack of interest in outside inspiration makes Clemens an unusually valuable contributor to the Flemish school, preserving his old-fashioned view while compatriots like Willaert (in Venice), de Rore and de Wert (itinerant in northern Italy), and Lassus (in Munich) were moving slowly out of the Renaissance altogether. As it turned out this move was the death of the Flemish school, since the Italians proved to be much better at Baroque thought and Monteverdi’s revolution was an entirely Italian affair. Clemens’s music shows Flemish artistry at its most typical. Clemens’s posthumous reputation has been coloured by some strange circumstances – his enigmatic nickname, his lack of precise dates and there­fore of anniversary years; and the fact that much of his finest work is to Dutch texts (the Souter­liedekens). The nickname seems to have been nothing more than an affectionate joke. There is no obvious reason why it should have been necessary to distinguish him from Pope Clement VII (who anyway died in 1534), nor why he should have been confused with the poet Jacobus Papa in Ieper (Ypres), who happened to have the same first name as him, though these things are sometimes claimed. Clemens spent most of his life in Flanders, especially in Bruges, Antwerp and Ypres; but he also regularly visited the southernmost parts of present-day Holland, appearing for instance in Leiden, Dordrecht and ’s-Hertogenbosch. It was for the Marian Brotherhood in ’s-Hertogenbosch in 1550 that he wrote Ego flos campi. The old-fashioned element in Clemens’s technique is his consistent use of imitative counterpoint, using chordal movement sparingly and for special effects. Not only that, he also tended to work the counterpoint at greater length than most composers, re-stating the melodies several times in prolonged schemes of imitation. This is especially true of his liturgical music, and may be heard clearly in the Mass Pastores quidnam vidistis. This method heightens the elusive, abstract nature of his thought, while reducing the precise meaning of the words to a position of relative unimportance. This, of course, was the very opposite of the Italian Baroque approach, though it should be emphasized that the general meaning of the words is essential to the mystical atmosphere which Clemens so perfectly evokes. This Mass is scored for SSATB except the third Agnus Dei which adds another bass part to the existing choir, and provides a sonorous conclusion to this very substantial Mass-setting. Clemens’s other compositions maintain the same mood and style of composition. Since he was unusually prolific – probably writing his 233 motets, 15 Masses and 159 vernacular Psalms in little more than ten years – it is hard to be completely certain that they are typical of all his work, though this seems very likely. Tribulationes civitatum is a men’s-voices only motet, scored for ATTB. It was composed in a single continuous section, though it hints at the two-part format of Pater peccavi and many other motets of this period, by the repeat of the haunting phrase ‘Domine, miserere’ halfway through and at the end. The dark sonorities it evokes are telling; and very different from the almost luxurious scoring of Pater peccavi, which is an eight-part (not double choir) SSAATTBB motet in two sections. This masterpiece, with its resonant chords, tells the story of the return of the Prodigal Son, each section ending with a repeat of the central words ‘Fac me sicut unum ex mercenariis tuis’. Ego flos campi is more homophonic, partly so that the words ‘sicut lilium inter spinas’, which formed the motto of the ’s-Hertogenbosch Brotherhood, could stand out. The seven voices SSATTBB (unique in Clemens’ output) symbolize the mystical Marian number.

John Sheppard has his own niche in English music, a composer who, unlike Tallis but like Clemens, found one style of composition and stuck to it. His characteristic style may be summed up as: involving a high treble part, which leads to breath-taking sonorities; doubling the countertenor part to give extra weight and detail to the middle of his sound; relying on the old-fashioned quoting of a chant cantus firmus line, in equal-length long notes and almost always in the tenor; and the persistent, quirky use of a certain kind of dissonance, created by allowing major and minor thirds to be sung at the same time and so to clash. Media vita is his masterpiece, unrivalled for its breadth of phrase and expressive power, summing up everything about him and his creative world.

Its text consists of the antiphon to the Nunc dimittis at Compline on the major Feast Days in the two weeks before Passion Sunday. The Nunc dimittis itself is the only part of the text to be sung to chant alone, while the antiphon text, which for days of such importance contained a verse and respond structure within itself, is set in polyphony complete. The first two verses are for men’s voices, the third for two trebles, two means and bass, and each is followed by all or part of the response ‘Sancte Deus. Sancte fortis. Sancte et misericors Salvator’. The composition begins with some of the most haunting words in any of the Offices: ‘Media vita in morte sumus’ (‘In the midst of life we are in death’). It was in setting these words that Sheppard conceived one of the greatest passages in all Tudor polyphony.

Cornysh was an early and rare example of what is now called the ‘Renaissance artist’, or possibly two Renaissance artists, since we may be dealing with a father and son of the same name. Men of remarkable intelligence, ‘William Cornysh’ was well known in his lifetime not only as an out­standing musician, but also as a poet, dramatist and actor. Unfortunately none of his dramatic writings has survived, though there is a poem by him in the British Library entitled A Treatise bitwene Trouth and Enformacion which was written while serving a jail sentence in the Fleet prison. In this he claimed that he had been con­victed by false information and thus wrong­fully accused, though it is not known exactly what the accusation was. As an actor he took part in many plays at court, some of which have survived, including The Golden Arbour (1511) and the Triumph of Love and Beauty (1514). But it was within the activities of the court masque that he would have had the ideal opportunity to show off his many talents. In 1501 he is reported as having devised the pageants and ‘disguysings’ for the marriage festivities of Arthur, Prince of Wales and Katherine of Aragon. More importantly, in June 1520 he led the Chapel Royal’s ceremonies at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, which included not only singing but also a full-scale pageant. In 1522 the Emperor Charles V visited England to negotiate with Henry VIII and on 15 June the court was entertained with a play by Cornysh which outlined in simple allegory the progress of the discussions and their expected outcome. As a musician Cornysh had the most prestigious employment at court – as Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal – which he fulfilled from 1509 until his death in 1523. Part of his job was to train the choristers, and it is probable that he was responsible for the very high standard of singing in the Chapel Royal choir which so amazed the French in the early years of the sixteenth century. In September 1513 Cornysh took the choir to France, giving performances in the area around Lille, and there survive several descriptions of how impressive these perform­ances were. Their reception was almost certainly caused by the combination of the high treble voice and the technically very intricate style of English compositions of that time.

Nothing would have shown this off better than his own Salve regina, which gives the word ‘virtuoso’ a new and excitingly polyphonic perspective. Here are embellishments which make some of Monteverdi’s, written in the early Baroque period for solo voice and continuo, seem routine; and yet Cornysh’s are to be sung chorally. I can think of no greater test of choral technique than some of the writing in the Eton Choirbook, from which this Salve regina is taken. The Gaude virgo mater Christi included here is less hectic in its detail, but still a testing piece to perform for choirs brought up on Byrd’s Ave verum or Tallis’s If ye love me. The least one can say about Cornysh’s style is that it is less intro­verted than that of his greatest contem­porary, John Browne. By comparison Cornysh always seemed to be striving for the most brilliant effect or the most pathetic tone, a way of thinking which would have made him perfectly suited to the madrigal a hundred years later, and makes him reminiscent of Thomas Weelkes.

Among Palestrina’s twenty-two six-part settings of the Mass, the Missa Assumpta est Maria and the Missa Papae Marcelli have long been the most celebrated. In both cases the power of the writing is largely attributable to bright sonorities: both have two tenor parts and Assumpta est Maria also has two soprano parts. No Renaissance composer, and few later ones, have been as proficient as Palestrina at writing positive, outward-going, major-key music, and in this context Assumpta est Maria represents one of the most important works of the period. It is interesting to follow the historical process by which a work such as the Missa Assumpta est Maria becomes so much more famous than any other comparable work. It is not essentially that it is a better piece of music than all the other contenders. The Missa Assumpta est Maria is not better than Palestrina’s fine six-part Mass Benedicta es caelorum, but it is better known because at some early stage it caught the eye of an editor who, by publishing an inexpensive edition of it, established a demand which the quality of the music was able to sustain. The whole system of reputation in pre-Baroque music rests largely on historical accident and is open to review at any time. It also seems to help a piece if there is an attractive story to go with it: the Missa Papae Marcelli has undoubtedly bene­fited from this. There have been at least twenty different editions of Papae Marcelli since the middle of the nineteenth century and ten of Assumpta est Maria (of which the first was prepared by Carl Proske in 1835). Palestrina’s earliest success in modern times was the eight-part Stabat mater which first appeared in Paris in 1810 and has so far received fifteen editions, including one by Richard Wagner. On the other hand, The Tallis Scholars had to rely on their own editions for recordings of the Masses Sicut lilium, Nigra sum, Benedicta es and Nasce la gioja mia. In general, public preference has been for Palestrina’s later works, of which the Missa Assumpta est Maria is one. The greater precision of thought which characterized Palestrina’s writing after the Council of Trent has found favour throughout the Christian world. Indeed such pieces as the Missa Assumpta est Maria have regularly been performed in recent years in Protestant services where the kind of syllabic setting shown, for example, at the beginning of the Gloria, is in line with one of the founding principles of all the reformed religions. The more relaxed, more abstract style of some of Palestrina’s earlier Mass-settings has not often been heard in church services since the first half of the sixteenth century, but it has increasingly attracted a following among concert-goers who pay to hear the music as music, rather than as an adjunct to worship. It is a feature of modern music-making that professional concert choirs do not necessarily choose the same repertoire as that of church choirs, even though they make their selection from the same composers. Neither the motet nor the Mass Assumpta est Maria was published in Palestrina’s lifetime, which supports the idea that they were late works, since all those settings most likely to sell had appeared in print before the composer’s old age. The musical style of them both supports this too: there is noticeably little thorough imitation between all six parts, but there is a great deal of block-chord writing. In the motet the lack of real independence in the part-writing is apparent from the beginning, and by the words ‘bene­dicunt Dominum’ all counterpoint is briefly suspended. These features inevitably transfer themselves to the Mass, most obviously in the Gloria and Credo, but also in the shorter movements where greater elaboration was customary. The first Kyrie, for example, begins with imitation between all the parts but very quickly has settled into alternating, harmonically controlled phrases which rely for their effect on being re-scored. It is the inventiveness of these different sub-divisions of the main choir, constantly grouping and regrouping, and the elastic way in which the text is set, which gives this music its irrepressible character.

Peter Phillips © 2010

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