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English organists under the Tudors boasted a wealth of repertoire. Their compositions are based on the elaborate choral works of the period. The present collection draws on the Mulliner Book and other sources, and includes music by the great Thomas Tallis, a musician who survived all the vicissitudes of the troubled 16th century to leave a significant musical legacy.
By David Vernier
By David Vernier
Tudor Organ Music
English organists of the early sixteenth century contributed roughly one hundred polyphonic keyboard works based on liturgical plainsong which survive in manuscript copy. These settings, typically arrangements of hymns and antiphons, found their inspiration in the familiar plainsong of the day, but the beauty of these works often lies in the nuanced turns of melodic line and in the metrical sophistication resulting from the build-up of two or three independent contrapuntal lines. Many of these works may have been conceived as contributions to the regular practice of alternatim performance, in which the organist and choir would have alternated verses in the presentation of a single hymn, but the keyboard works appear to have developed a life of their own both as pedagogical works and as independent keyboard music. Given their origins in the world of small vocal works, many of the individual movements retain the delicacy of the miniature, allowing the composer the luxury of concentrating on one or two elaborative techniques.
Perhaps it was this feature of focused elaboration that inspired the English organist, collector and transcriber of many of these works, Thomas Mulliner, who flourished in London in the 1560s, to compile his so-called Mulliner Book (London, Add. 30513), one of the central exemplars of this repertoire. Mulliner appears to have had an aesthetic interest in collecting the very best individual pieces. He sometimes dismembers alternatim sets, and he includes in his anthology a number of works with shifting metres as well as works involving careful attention to motivic play. Indeed, the works he chose for inclusion demonstrate especially well the art of compositional planning, and Jane Flynn has argued that the collection as a whole mirrors the teaching practices of English choir schools during this pre-Reformation era.
The composers who contributed to this repertoire were organists by training. John Redford (d. 1547) was associated with St Paul's Cathedral and ascended to the position of Almoner and Master of the Choristers prior to his death. Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) spent his early career in a series of church positions, appointed initially as "joculator organum," and eventually rose to a position as a member of the Chapel Royal in 1543, where he served under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and eventually under Elizabeth I. John Blitheman (c. 1525-1591) too worked at the Chapel Royal beginning in 1558; he was also associated with Christ Church, Oxford. Thomas Preston (d. after 1559) may be the organist found at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1543, and might also be the organist and choirmaster who served Trinity College, Cambridge, intermittently between 1548 and 1559. He contributed a number of works, possibly including the"Uppon La Mi Re" found anonymously amidst a cluster of his other keyboard works in the manuscript London Add. 29996.
The last member of the organist fraternity to compose in this style was Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), a generational outlier. Tomkins, organist at Worcester Cathedral from 1596 who eventually succeeded to the post of organist at the Chapel Royal in 1621, encountered the repertoire of liturgical keyboard works late in his life when he acquired a manuscript containing the by then old-fashioned repertoire. Always an assiduous student of music, Tomkins accorded this manuscript, London Add. 29996, the same treatment he had given to his personal copy of Thomas Morley's A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597), annotating and commenting on the details of the music he had before him. His judgements on this music, which he characterized as "good" and even "very good", led Tomkins to undertake his own experiments in the genre, and his autograph copies of several of these deliberately archaic pieces are dated in the period from 1646 to1654. He may have intended them as didactic works, as John Irving and others have suggested, which would fit these late contributions into the same tradition as Mulliner Book from nearly a century earlier.
The works in this idiom have a propensity towards motivic integration. Often, short passages of imitation, canon or simple repetition either at pitch or in sequence can be found surrounding the slow motion cantus firmus (see for example Redford's settings of Lucem tuam, among the best demonstration of this art). Even the unknowing pupil would likely have heard and identified the melodies on which these settings were based, however, since the central hymn or antiphon tune proceeds only slightly more slowly than the surrounding counterpoint. The borrowed melody may often be found as an inner voice in the texture, but it can be placed in any register, and many composers seem to delight in voice crossings where the slow motion tune is now above and now below the nominally accompanying material. The newly crafted materials necessarily resemble the original in modal (or perhaps tonal) implication, but cadences of the cantus firmus are not always strictly observed, and composers seem to have enjoyed placing the melodic resting points of the "new" voices in places that contrast with the normal phrasing of the original melody.
Above all, the repertory is to be noted for its rhythmic displacements. Canonic or imitative writing creates tension in some works (e.g. the anonymous A solis ortus cardine from London Add. 29996, fol. 163v), but elsewhere metrical modulation and contrasts of motivic material generate the patterns of creative energy that keep this repertory moving forward. Redford's Angulare fundamentum, for example, incorporates several levels of syncopation before shifting to a triple division in the second half of the setting. This rhythmic variability offers composers a sophisticated array of coloristic choices, allowing a good deal of contrast from one setting to the next. Perhaps this is why some clusters of alternatim settings seem to invite treatment as variation sets; composers such as Blitheman may have systematically linked a series of successive "verses" based on a single cantus firmus as a means to explore longer forms. Certainly, there is no liturgical reason for a Gloria tibi Trinitas to be gathered into six related movements; a broader artistic impulse is almost certainly at work.
To take full advantage of the coloristic nature of this repertoire, the recording uses two organs suited to both the general style of the music and, in some cases, to the particular requirements of individual pieces. The organs are of modest size, but both are possessed of surprisingly full and robust sounds, as well as sounds of great warmth and clarity.
Cynthia J. Cyrus
Blair School of Music,Vanderbilt University
The Mulliner Book. Musica Britannica Vol.1 (Stainer and Bell) – works by Redford and Blitheman.
Thomas Tomkins: Keyboard Music. Musica Britannica Vol. V (Stainer and Bell).
Thomas Tallis: Complete Keyboard Works (Hinrichsen).
Old English Organ Music (Bärenreiter) – works by Anonymous.
Early Tudor Organ Music (Stainer and Bell) – works by Redford and Anonymous.
Tracks 1–21 recorded at Sudekum Chapel, First Lutheran Church, Nashville, Tennessee
Organ by Helmuth Wolff, 1998
Tracks 22–30 recorded at Ackerman Auditorium, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee
Organ by John Brombaugh, 1986
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TUDOR ORGAN MUSIC