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Hyperion Records

CDH55051 - Taverner: Missa Corona spinea & other sacred music
CDH55051
(Originally issued on CDA66360)
Recording details: February 1989
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: April 2000
Total duration: 58 minutes 38 seconds

PENGUIN GUIDE ROSETTE

'I found this recording a pure delight' (Gramophone)

'A superb disc and an astonishing bargain' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Superb' (Organists' Review)

Missa Corona spinea & other sacred music
Gloria  [10'27] LatinEnglish
Credo  [9'52] LatinEnglish
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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.

Taverner’s three festal Masses (Gloria tibi Trinitas, Corona Spinea and O Michael) represent a high point in the development of that uniquely English genre. Each is scored for six-part choir with the high trebles so characteristic of English music of this period, and is constructed over a cantus firmus. The occasion for which Corona Spinea was written cannot be identified with certainty, for while its title suggests a connection with the Feast of the Crown of Thorns, such an event is not known to have been widely considered of major importance in the Sarum calendar. The origin of the cantus firmus that provides its structural framework remains obscure, as does its date of composition; unlike Gloria tibi Trinitas, it does not form part of the original layer of part-books compiled for use at Cardinal College in the late 1520s, but was added somewhat later by a subsequent owner, William Forrest, a petty canon at the College. As the longest of Taverner’s settings, it was clearly conceived for an elaborate ceremony involving a large choir with boys of exceptional skill; the treble part is consistently more florid than the others.

Corona Spinea conforms with the established English tradition in that it comprises only four movements, a result of the Sarum rite’s custom of performing the Kyrie troped (that is, with the addition of extra words, according to season) to plainchant. Each movement is laid out to approximately the same length, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei containing more extensive melismatic writing than the Gloria and Credo (part of whose text is omitted, again following local convention). The cantus firmus is deployed in the tenor, where it provides the foundation both for a web of constantly shifting vocal colours in the full sections and also for some of the more delicately scored reduced-voice passages. As it invariably moves in longer note values, the cantus firmus often acts as a pedal point for the other voices to decorate with motivic material. While imitative writing plays a role of some significance especially in the more syllabic full sections, many of the intervening duets and trios are characterised by abstract figuration, sequential ostinato patterns that are sustained and unfolded over lengthy spans with a compelling logic unsurpassed by Taverner himself, and rarely to be found outside the works of Josquin.

Though the overall compass of Corona Spinea extends over the usual twenty-two notes, the disposition of the six voices differs from that of Taverner’s other two festal Masses. Instead of two countertenors, it has two bass parts of slightly different tessitura whose function is more often to support the cantus firmus than to participate fully in the imitative texture. Taverner was able to exploit the contrast between the top and bottom parts to spectacular effect at moments such as ‘Et expecto’ (Credo) and at the opening of the Agnus Dei I. The division of the trebles into two equal parts (a device known as gimel, after the Latin gemellus, twin) in the Benedictus creates an exquisite sonority, only surpassed by the double gimel (divided trebles and means) of Agnus Dei II, which, as in Gloria tibi Trinitas, seems to encapsulate the heart of the work.

The function of Marian antiphons such as Gaude plurimum was devotional rather than liturgical; their performance after the end of the office of Compline was written into the statutes of various educational foundations such as Eton College, King’s College, Cambridge, and, in 1525, Cardinal College, Oxford, where antiphons to the Trinity and to St William of York were specified in addition to the customary Marian ones. Judging by the number of sources in which it is preserved, Gaude plurimum was held in especially high regard in the sixteenth century. Drawing on traditions established some decades earlier, Taverner generated a musical structure out of the contrast between passages scored for two or three voices and those for sonorous five-part choir, and thereby lent a sense of direction to this extended and effusive text. Much of the writing is imitative in style and concentrated in manner, with melismas generally being reserved for the conclusion of each section.

Taverner’s setting of the Lenten respond for Compline, In pace, is scored for mean, two countertenors and bass: in the copyist’s words, ‘three men and a child’. It is based on the plainchant, which appears in the polyphonic sections as a cantus firmus in the top part.

Sally Dunkley © 2000

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