Thomas Tallis – Spem in alium

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Spem in alium [40-part Motet]
Salve intemerata [Motet]
Missa Salve intemerata
With all our heart
Discomfort them, O Lord
I call and cry to thee, O lord

Oxford Camerata
Jeremy Summerly

Recorded between 21-23 January 2005 at All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: August 2005
CD No: NAXOS 8.557770
Duration: 77 minutes

Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) led an extraordinary life, becoming a much-admired composer to Elizabeth I’s household. Today his standing has never been higher and 2005 celebrates his quincentenary. This CD includes the 40-part motet “Spem in alium” and two other ambitious creations, the “Missa Salve intemerata” and, pre-dating it, a motet similarly named, a continuous work of over 20 minutes duration, a length unparalleled at the time.

If the year of Tallis’s birth and his birthplace are uncertain, what is not in doubt is his capacity to have survived as a member of the Chapel Royal through five reigns (if the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey’s tenuous few days as monarch apparent is included). And what times they were! Born a Catholic (as was everyone) in the reign of Henry VII, Tallis grew up as a court musician during Henry VIII’s reign of terror, now politely known as the English Reformation. Taught to set Latin texts to music, Tallis cautiously followed the prevailing times and set the new English texts produced by Henry’s Protestant henchmen. The slightest wavering from the new order (particularly under Edward VI, Henry’s heir) would surely have resulted in death. After all, Henry himself was a composer and a keen follower of trends in his court. The even more authoritarian reigns of Edward VI (a keen Protestant) and Mary Tudor (an even keener Catholic) eventually led to the somewhat calmer times of Elizabeth I.

The equivalent era in recent memory was surely that of Nazi Germany, when many composers lived in permanent fear of their lives, and often with good reason if they were Jewish. Perhaps the composer who possessed the same skill as Tallis for survival in Nazi Germany was Karl Amadeus Hartmann, whose centenary is celebrated this year.

What has this preamble got to do with a review of a compact disc of Tallis’s church compositions? Music is a means of expression and 20th-century composers have used their musical gifts to voice their innermost feelings. Every top-notch composer falls into this category to some degree or another. Take Benjamin Britten and Malcolm Arnold as diametrically opposed (British) creative spirits. Britten was always cautious as to his role beyond being anything other than a “useful” composer, not wishing to expose himself too overtly. Arnold, particularly in his nine symphonies, places every facet of his life before his listeners with much drama, despair, elation and fortitude.

I use these two examples for comparison with Tallis. Where did his heart lie? How much did he expose his true feelings through his music? Just like Shostakovich in Stalin’s era, Tallis might well, during his time, have been gripped in an almost permanent state of anxiety for his wellbeing, especially with a monster such as Henry VIII as his ultimate master. In fact, Tallis seems to have been the ultimate pragmatist. His musical talents gained him access to significant, pre-Reformation institutions, laid waste by Henry, which resulted in Tallis journeying to various churches and abbeys in or near London, the most famous being Waltham Abbey. Seemingly he transferred with ease through the pre-Reformation, Reformation, Catholic reversion and, finally, Protestant reigns. Both Tallis and his pupil, William Bryd, were rewarded by Elizabeth with the granting of a licence to maintain a monopoly over the printing and publication of music and music paper for 21 years. He died in comfortable old age.

This ability of Thomas Tallis to rise above the turmoil of his times is reflected in the glory of his music. It has an ethereal quality leavened with a depth of expression quite unique in English music. Not without coincidence is that Vaughan Williams’s greatest work (arguably) was inspired by a Tallis anthem. Fortunately much of Tallis’s large output is preserved, including a number of organ works, and this Naxos release offers a useful snapshot of Tallis’s compositions.

“Salve intemerata”, to a Latin text, is a pre-Reformation work, massive in its contours and substantial in its length. Despite it being an early work, from Tallis’s twenties, it displays an exalted level of invention.

The three English settings were composed post-Henry VIII’s reign when Edward VI had banned music to Latin texts. Tallis, the pragmatist, later translated “I call and cry to thee, O Lord” to Latin in his motet “O sacrum convivium”. By contrast “With all our heart” was a later setting from a Latin text, the motet “Salvator mundi”. Interestingly “Discomfort them, O Lord”, originally to a Latin text, acquired the English words as a response to the threat of the Spanish Armada – by which time Tallis was three years dead.

“Spem in alium” was most probably written when the Duke of Norfolk, a high-ranking courtier in Elizabeth’s time, challenged Tallis to match the 40-part motet by the visiting Italian composer Alessandro Striggio. The resulting work of Tallis’s is certainly his greatest legacy and one of the finest pieces of music by an English composer, indeed by any composer. Tallis has finally been recognised as the most influential of all English composers (rivalled only by Purcell). His music has inspired virtually all generations from the start of the 20th-century, from Vaughan Williams to Tippett and beyond; and there is evidence that Sibelius was also influenced by the English Reformation, and the Italian Renaissance – Tallis and Bryd, and Palestrina – when writing his Sixth Symphony.

Has any composer equalled the power and beauty of Tallis’s “Spem in alium”?

Set in 40 separate parts, it is a great challenge to performers. On this Naxos recording, Jeremy Summerly takes a beautifully measured pace, adding four or so minutes to most contemporary accounts. You have to return to Michael Tippett’s post-war recording for a similar time-span. This glorious music warrants such spacious treatment and needs it to make its full impact.

But should we hear Tallis from a mixed-voice choir? England boasts forty or so cathedral choirs, all of which are under the gun in terms of funding. All are capable of doing justice to Tallis’s contrapuntal mastery. It was for cathedral choirs (of boys and men’s voices) that he wrote his music. Women had no involvement in Tallis’s circle of musicians. Why then should we tolerate mixed choirs in this repertoire when there is such a plentiful supply of ‘authentic’ choirs? And especially when the opportunity to hear and record our great cathedral choirs might disappear in our lifetime given the social and financial pressures being applied.

Although there is the question as to why there are no Tallis recordings from these magnificent cathedral sources to mark his quincentenary year, it must be stated that, on this recording, the members of Oxford Camerata excel themselves in the Latin and English texts, with superb enunciation and expressive capability.

This release is available in a Limited Edition presentation, which includes a bonus CD entitled “Early Sacred Classics”. The Tallis recording is also issued in SACD and DVD-A formats.

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