Thomas Tallis

Jesus autem transiens / Credo in Deum
Salve regina
Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter
O nata lux de lumine
Gaude gloriosa Dei mater
Spem in alium

The Sixteen
Harry Christophers

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 1 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It was appropriate for the majority of the music in this Prom to be composed by Thomas Tallis whose 500th-anniversary we celebrate during 2005, although there is some doubt as to the actual year.

Thomas Tallis was a giant of his time and his music seems to grow in stature with the passing of the centuries. Not only was he a great composer but he trained and nurtured the succeeding generation, the most notable being William Byrd. Tallis and his proteges founded a school of music that remains recognised as being the most important of its time throughout Europe. This is, arguably, the only period in musical history when England attained such honour.

One way of judging this to be so is to compare two 40-part motets, one by the Italian, Alessandro Striggio, who visited the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and the other by Tallis who was challenged by a senior courtier to emulate it. The result was “Spem in alium”. But the only problem with effecting a judgement on the qualities of the two works is that we are never given the chance of hearing Striggio’s piece and, thus, to grasp the full measure of Tallis’s achievement in the context of his European contemporaries.

Much has been made of the difficulty of writing for forty separate voices as if Tallis alone had the means to a satisfactory solution but, if a potential rival from Italy was also capable of such complex musical thought, was it as difficult as we all suppose?

This, perhaps, is a question that need not detain us today. Rather we can measure the achievement of Tallis’s greatest work by the sustained elevation of thought carried through its 10- to 12-minute duration. Harry Christophers took barely eight minutes, which diminished its stature.

If Tallis is now thought of as one of England’s very greatest composers, then “Spem in alium” must be regarded as a pinnacle of English music from any age. This Prom placed it into a national context, showing it to be the culmination from a pre-Reformation movement already exploring new expressive devices. Hence the concert began with two relatively little known musicians associated with the Eton Choirbook. Robert Wylkynson wrote “Jesus autem transiens / Credo in Deum” somewhat before 1500, pre-Tallis’s birth. It calls for 13 male voices and was first heard in the Chapel of Eton College. The performance by The Sixteen was beautifully sonorous that helped alleviate the somewhat static harmonies.

Next came “Salve regina” by one of two William Cornysh’s, father or son. No one is quite sure but again the link is with the Eton Choirbook. Probably written in the late 15th-century, it is a five-voice setting with an overall range from bass to treble of three octaves or more, using a florid musical idiom that clearly spawned the idiosyncratic syntax of Thomas Tallis.

Tallis’s “Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter” are all gentle and solemn pieces, the most famous being “Why fum’th in fight”, used by Vaughan Williams as the theme in his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Before ‘Spem’ we heard the beautiful setting of “O nata lux de lumine” and the sheer scale and technical assurance of “Gaude gloriosa Dei mater” suggests Tallis at the height of his powers. Of unknown provenance it is a work of great innovation, with each of the nine invocations to the Virgin being carefully delineated by a change in scoring and texture.

The glories of “Spem in alium” were thus set into context. Although not a late work in Tallis’s output it is a profound one that displays an astonishing contrapuntal mastery. It was a pleasure to hear The Sixteen under Harry Christophers perform this repertoire, although the decision to prefer a mixed rather than a male choir is to be regretted. With many wonderful cathedral choirs available it was perhaps a missed opportunity not to have heard the ‘proper’ soundworld of an all-male ensemble in which boy-trebles are so different to those of mature ladies. And I don’t think a cathedral choir would have required two chamber organs to support “Spem in alium”.

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