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ClassicsOnline Home » TALLIS: Mass for Four Voices / Motets
American Record Guide
BBC Music Magazine
Thomas Tallis (c.1505 - 1585)
Mass for Four Voices Motets
The breadth and diversity of Thomas Tallis's sacred music is one of its most appealing characteristics, and one of the reasons why his music has been a constant in choral anthologies from his day to ours. In adapting to the constraints of four different Tudor regimes Tallis produced works so different in function, vision, and musical language as to provoke the accusation of Vicar of Brayism. The criticism is understandable when one directly compares, for instance, the magnificent 'Gaude gloriosa', written during the Catholic revival of Mary's reign, with the unassuming 'If ye love me', from the protestant era of Edward VI, but one must bear in mind that obedience to a Tudor monarch was a religious dogma in itself, while fidelity and servility were not so closely associated as they are in democratic minds.
Tallis's diverse styles are well represented on this recording. Most recognisably traditional are the responsories 'Videte miraculum' and 'Loquebanturvariis linguis' intended for the feasts of the Purification and Whitsun respectively. Through both runs the Sarum plainchant which acts both as a cohesive force and as a fount of melodic inspiration. ' Audivi vocem', a responsory for Advent, is smaller in scale and uses the plainsong only as a point of reference for a freely-composed polyphony, but in all three the debt to Taverner and Sheppard is unmistakeable.
These responsories, 'Sancte Deus', and the Mass for Four Voices date either from late in Henry VIII's or Mary's reigns. 'Sancte Deus' is unusual for several reasons, not least because of its more fantasia-like structure: rhetorical homophony breaks into elaborate melismas while the whole retains throughout an austerity perhaps appropriate to a votive antiphon addressed to the three-fold holiness of Christ rather than to the paradigm of maternal love, the Virgin Mary. The syllabic style of word setting is shared by the Mass, and suggests a more functional, less decorative role in the liturgy. It has been suggested, though it must always remain speculative, that the Mass was written at a time late in Henry's reign, when Cranmer was known to prefer simple settings of the Latin rite. If so, the Mass only partly conforms since Tallis still allows himself the odd melismatic flourish.
Apart from its own inherent interest, the Mass also provides a stylistic link with the works of Tallis contained in the Cantiones Sacrae, published by himself and Byrd in 1575, and written after the Elizabethan religious settlement of 1559. 'Salvator mundi' and 'O sacrum convivium', though rich in texture, are part of a genre much happier with pure polyphonic exercise. They are free-standing, relying on no external material, and their expositions of text are uncluttered. Many of Byrd and Tallis's anthems from this period have dual English and Latin texts, indicating how the two exploited the ambiguities of Elizabeth's religious policy. 'Te lucis ante terminum' and 'In manus tuas Domine' however, are more explicit in the traditional Catholic tradition, being part of the service of Compline. Whether they were performed at court in services allowed by the Queen, and why they were able to be published leads to the wider, as yet unanswered, question of how intolerant of things Roman Catholic Elizabeth could afford to be. Whatever the answer, Tallis's wide range of styles seems unity itself set against the confused religion which it served.
Jeremy Summerly was a choral scholar at New College, Oxford from where he graduated in 1982. For the next seven years he worked as Studio Manager with BBC Radio. It was during this time that he became Director of the Edington Festival Consort and founded the Oxford Camerata. In 1989 he left the BBC in order to join the Royal Academy of Music as a lecturer in the department of Academic Studies. In 1990 he was appointed conductor of Schola Cantorum of Oxford, one of the finest medium-sized choral groups in the UK. He is now in considerable demand as a conductor, and recently signed a long-term contract with Naxos to record 16th- and 17th-century music with the Oxford Camerata and Schola Cantorum of Oxford.
The Oxford Camerata was formed by Jeremy Summerly to meet the growing demand for choral groups specialising in music from the Renaissance era. It has been assembled from some of the finest young singers in Britain, and is flexible in size to meet the varying demands of such early choral works. The Camerata will record a number of discs for Naxos containing music by Palestrina, Tams, Victoria, Lassus and Gesualdo.
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TALLIS: Mass for Four Voices / Motets