Tallis’s long life spanned the reigns of all five Tudor monarchs. Consequently he had to endure four major shifts in styles of worship, from the pre-Reformation Sarum rite in Latin (the Salisbury usage which was widely popular), the limited Henrician reforms, the drastically simplified rite in English under Edward VI, then a brief return to Sarum under Mary before the victory of Protestantism and the English rite under Elizabeth. He seems to have been a modest and unassuming man who made the best of his situation. He is remembered for his work in getting music for the English rite going, but it seems that his heart was really in the older forms. His best music is to the Latin rite. We should also remember that Elizabeth, although necessarily a Protestant, was fond of Latin church music and enjoyed it in the Chapel Royal. Both Tallis and his later colleague and successor Byrd remained Catholics and were protected by the queen.
Here we have a collection of his votive antiphons. These were free compositions, often of considerable length, usually setting specially written texts honouring the Virgin Mary, and sung after the last service of the day. They were written in the elaborate style which was used for the Sarum rite, with frequent melismas—several notes to a syllable—whereas the Reformers preferred syllabic settings in which the words were clear and distinct. They were consequently popular before the Reformation and frowned on afterwards.
Strictly speaking, two of the pieces here, the first and last, are not votive antiphons but motets. However, there is no need to quibble. These two are also probably the latest to be written. Suscipe quaeso Domine comes from the 1575 Cantiones sacrae volume which Tallis published together with Byrd. Each composer contributed seventeen pieces, possibly to mark the seventeen years since the queen’s accession. However, this piece was quite possibly written for use under Mary, for the occasion when Cardinal Pole absolved England from schism in 1554. It is clear and passionate, easy to follow and powerful.
Gaude gloriosa, possibly the last, and certainly the longest and the most splendid of Tallis’s votive antiphons, also probably comes from the brief period of Marian restoration. It is written for six rather than the more usual five voices, and some of these lines are sometimes split, making for a really rich texture. It also has that onwards propulsion which is a mark of Tallis’s best work, with flexible long lines.
The next four works are all early, dating from the Henrician period, and are somewhat less accomplished, being inclined to sprawl. Salve intemerata is possibly the worst offender here, and is one of Tallis’s earliest surviving compositions. A particular point of interest is that Ave, rosa sine spinis and Ave, Dei patris filia do not survive intact. The first has a missing passage in the treble line, which has here been reconstructed by Nick Sandon, and the second also has missing passages which have been reconstructed by David Allinson. It is a wonderful thing that it has been possible to make these works performable in this way. All these pieces are of interest and you can hear Tallis developing his long lines, increasingly assured harmony and wonderful variety of texture.
Finally we have O nata lux, from the 1575 Cantiones sacrae, which sets two verses from the hymn at Lauds on the feast of the Transfiguration. This is a motet rather than a hymn setting, and the other verses from the hymn play no part. It is a late work, a tiny piece, but a gem. Tallis here shows himself as accomplished in the newer style of music as he had been with the votive antiphons of earlier periods.
The Cardinall’s Musick is a mixed choir with women on the top line. It has a long and distinguished track record in Tudor Latin church music, with their complete recording of Byrd’s Latin works (originally ASV and then Hyperion) a particular highlight. Their performances here are as secure and eloquent as one would expect, and they bring plenty of variety to what could be rather long-winded texts. This disc has been compiled from five of their previous seven discs of Tallis for Hyperion, with recording dates ranging from 2005 to 2014. However, all recordings were made in the sympathetic acoustic of the Fitzalan Chapel at Arundel Castle by the same team and, not surprisingly, they match well on this compilation.
There are other recordings of the music here, though sometimes not many. The chief competitor is the Chapelle du Roi under Alistair Dixon, who have recorded Tallis’s complete works on nine discs (Signum). However, you would have to buy several, or the whole set, to get all the works here, as you would with the original issues of these performances. So this is a convenient way of exploring votive antiphons on one disc. Texts and translations are included, as are details of the singers for each work and helpful notes on the music and the whole production is exemplary.