The 16th century was the golden age of English music. In the work of Elizabethan composers such as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd is a musical style so beautifully expressive, inventive and distinct that it is still considered the pinnacle of our national musical tradition.
Their sweet harmonies and glorious counterpoint regularly resound around cathedrals and concert halls, a living testament to an exceptional cultural era.
It wasn't just during Elizabeth's reign, though, that British choirs enjoyed a wealth of compositional riches. Cultural ravages perpetrated in the name of the Reformation meant few manuscripts witnessing England's earlier musical heritage survive. Those that do, however, attest to a truly extraordinary choral style, little influenced by the continental currents of the time.
The sumptuous music in the Eton Choirbook, a huge manuscript compiled in the very first years of the 16th century, is unique in its extravagantly florid lines and saturated choral textures. Featuring the work of 20-odd composers, it offers a vivid yet tantalising glimpse of a pre-Reformation musical culture. I was strongly reminded of this collection when listening to The Tallis Scholars' spectacular new CD, featuring John Taverner's Missa Corona spinea. Elements of the elaborate Etonian tradition can be found, a quarter of a century later, in Taverner's virtuosic setting. He must have had unbelievably talented trebles in his Oxford college choir because from start to finish this is a mass made for stratospheric soprano singing.
Nowadays I wouldn't entrust it to many choirs other than conductor Peter Phillips' Tallis Scholars, whose sopranos' purity and focus is essential for this exploration of the upper limits of the register. Janet Coxwell and Amy Haworth deliver a stunning display of tonal clarity and stamina, performing with breathtaking control.
The rest of the choir lend the tutti sections a satisfyingly full sonority which, in combination with the extravagant top part, is reminiscent of the Eton repertoire. Content to take a back seat for the majority of the mass, the inner voices swell irresistibly with beautiful rising phrases in the rare moments the sopranos snatch a few bars' respite. Phillips' tempi give the music ample room to breathe. It's a fantastic recording that'll leave your ears ringing rejoicingly.
To think this heavenly music may have been performed—as Phillips suggests in his liner notes—to King Henry just a few years before he oversaw the systematic destruction of everything it represents is a bitter irony. Fortunately, the choral legacy of Eton and Taverner adapted, survived and eventually flourished in the work of the next generation of composers, the Elizabethan exemplars Tallis and Byrd.