Queen Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, ruled England for only five years, but they were good years for music. Mary’s first priority was the restoration of the Catholic Church, recently outlawed by her father and younger brother in favor of the new Church of England. Considering music to be an important part of the restoration, Mary encouraged composers to write elaborate sacred music similar in style to the monumental English works from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries—works as different as possible from the simplified music for the Church of England composed in the years immediately preceding her reign. Upon Mary’s death, Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne. She was a fine musician (as was Mary), much enamored of the sacred works by Tallis, White, and the young William Byrd. As a Protestant, she officially catered to the Protestant ethic of simplified music for churches throughout the realm, but for her private enjoyment she commissioned Latin works in a far richer style.
When Henry VIII died in 1547, having broken with the church in Rome in 1534 over the pope’s refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, English sacred music was still large-scale, intricate, complex, and dominated by grand effects. This all changed when the nine-year-old Edward VI, Henry VIII’s youngest child, ascended the throne upon his father’s death. The boy’s regents, his protector, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, all took advantage of the opportunity afforded by a boy king to impose a wholly new style of music on the young Anglican church, a style of simplicity and modesty, the primary purpose of which was to project words clearly, one syllable per note, the words being entirely in English. For composers who had previously luxuriated in the flamboyant and challenging musical environment supported by Henry VII and VIII, this must have been a great disappointment.
Such disappointment was not to last. Edward reigned only six years. In 1553, he died at the age of fifteen, at which point his half-sister, Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s oldest child, became England’s first queen regent. In her self-selected mission to re-establish Catholicism as England’s national religion, Mary gave composers free rein to write in the old style. The resulting large-scale works, predominantly based on Gregorian chant and sung in Latin, delayed what many regard as the musical Renaissance in England, for their intent was to revive a “Golden Age” of the past. But, cut off from developments on the Continent, Mary’s composers were not concerned with such novelties. The tradition they aspired to continue was the dizzyingly decorative art exemplified by England’s perpendicular Gothic architecture, which had reached its zenith with the fan vaulting of Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey (1503), and King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (1515). This may not have been the “Renaissance” of the humanists and the master painters of Italy, but it was a magical self-contained world of extraordinary effects and stunning craftsmanship. We can well imagine that composers in the 1550s working in Westminster Abbey, or in any similar building, would find inspiration for their music in the mathematically-derived designs of its walls and ceiling, designs which we still find breathtaking today.
Our program presents a representative sampling of music from Mary Tudor’s reign (1553-1558) and that of her half-sister, Elizabeth I (1558-1603), Henry VIII’s middle child—the fifty-year period of the two Tudor queens. Both Mary and Elizabeth played keyboards at a high level, and both had a keen ear for music of quality. Following her coronation, Elizabeth allowed composers to continue producing works in Latin, especially her favorite composers, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, both Catholics. They were permitted to write anything they wished so long as they continued to write some (increasingly sophisticated) music in English for the Anglican church at large. This both did, while expending their greatest efforts on elaborate contrapuntal edifices in Latin. Byrd retired from active participation in the Chapel Royal in the 1590s, nearly thirty years prior to his death in 1523, preferring to devote all his efforts from that time on to secret music for the recusant Catholic church rather than divide his loyalties between two antithetical religious camps.
Toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Italian music flooded into England, causing a sensation and a new style of English music. Until then, however, Latin Tudor music after the death of Edward predominantly took its inspiration from the old rather than the new. This was by no means a sterile or unproductive orientation. Indeed, the combined reigns of the Tudor queens was perhaps the most fruitful period for music in England’s storied history. These were the fifty years of the sacred music of Christopher Tye, John Sheppard, Robert White, Robert Parsons, Thomas Tallis, and William Byrd. The latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, especially, saw an extraordinary outpouring of secular works, predominantly pieces for keyboard, by some of these same composers, and by others who would live well into the seventeenth century: Giles Farnaby, John Munday, Martin Peerson, Thomas Tomkins, Orlando Gibbons, and John Bull, not to mention the flourishing of the “English madrigal school” of the 1590s and early 1600s led by Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes, and John Wilbye.
Tallis’s seven-voice Mass on the Christmas introit chant Puer natus est deserves special mention. It appears to have been written in the fall 1554 for joint performance by the Chapel Royal, the choir of St. Paul’s, and the “Flemish” chapel singers (the Capilla Flamenca) of king Philip II of Spain, who had arrived in England in time to marry Mary Tudor the previous July 25. The seven voices of the Puer natus est Mass serve as an allusion to Mary Tudor as the earthly counterpart of the heavenly Mary, whose number was traditionally understood to be seven because of her seven sorrows and seven joys. Tallis’s large-scale piece had a further reference: its choice of cantus firmus was intended to celebrate the upcoming Christmas season and also what was believed to be the imminent birth of Mary and Philip’s first child, who, if a boy, would become the future king of England. (Mary did not bear a child, however, having had what is now thought to have been a phantom pregnancy.)
Tallis’s huge work survives incomplete (most of the Credo is lost, as well as several voice parts of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei; it probably never had a Kyrie). Joseph Kerman first detected how the surviving fragments should be reassembled, and also recognized the untitled cantus firmus and the manner in which Tallis had arranged it in six sections, in each of which the sequence of pitches and their duration are controlled by a different algorithm. An edition of the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, with missing voices supplied by Sally Dunkley and David Wulstan, appeared in 1977. In listening to this great work, our ears hardly register an underlying foundation voice or its complicated presentation. We instead are captivated by seven-voice textures of unprecedented grandeur and melodic beauty, striking for their seemingly effortless unfolding.
As Kerman has explained, Tallis presents the cantus firmus in each movement according to a progressively more arcane principle. In the first part of the Gloria, each cantus firmus note has a duration based on the vowel associated with it in the original chant words. The vowels have the values a=1, e=2, i=3, o=4, u=5. Thus, for the first three notes of the cantus firmus, G, d, d, originally sung to the word “Puer” (G-d on the syllable “Pu-” and d on “er”), the durations are: five units of G, five units of d, followed by another two units of d, thus five units of G followed by seven units of d. In the first two sections of the Gloria, the unit is the semibreve. In the third section (“Qui tollis), the unit is the breve. In the first two segments of the Sanctus, segment 1 of the chant is presented in original note order, then repeated in retrograde. Here the unit is the minim. When the vowel requires a note of five units or even four in duration, the units tend to be divided up and recombined to accommodate the Mass words, further obscuring the principle at work. In the Pleni, Tallis adds another twist. Here each time the chant has a two- or three-note neume (two or three notes joined together in the notational system of the time), that neume will be repeated in retrograde before continuing on to the next part of the chant. In the Benedictus, the vowel values are reversed.
Agnus Dei I has the longest time units thus far, and covers segment 4 of the chant, first in dotted breve units, later in dotted semibreve units. This results in some very long cantus firmus notes, which Tallis shows a special skill in disguising; indeed, he does this so well that we are hardly aware of the prolonged pedal tones at all. His primary strategy is to have the top two voices engage in a call and response dialogue, with melodic phrases that slowly change over the course of repetitions. We find these so mesmerizing that we tend to lose track of the harmonic stasis underneath. Agnus Dei II, with a minim unit, uses segments 5 and 6 of the chant and subjects them to the most abstract formula yet: Kerman represents the repetition scheme by the series n1 n2 n1 n2 n3 n2 n3 n4 n3 n4 n5…n20 n21 n22 n21 n22, where the n’s represent successive notes of the cantus firmus.
Daniel Bennett Page in his dissertation on music for Mary’s chapel, speculated that Tallis’s strange cantus firmus procedures in the Puer natus Mass might allude to Mary’s motto Veritas temporis filia (“Truth, the daughter of time”) by way of its “highly atypical manipulation of temporal values.” On a purely technical level, we see Tallis challenging himself to write effective music under the most extreme constraints—and to do it in such a way that we are not aware of the constraints. Why? Perhaps because he writes music as a metaphor for the two realities of the medieval world view: on the one hand, there is the underlying mathematical truth of God’s design, which can only be apprehended by the intellect. On the other hand, there is the world of sensory experience, of music as melody and harmony, of motifs and patterns, of pervasive imitation and block chords. This aspect of music takes nearly all of our attention, and it is what we normally judge when we assess the value of a musical composition. The more rigorous and unyielding the underlying framework, however, the more truthful such music becomes as a metaphor of the underlying order of the cosmos.
The Tudor composers learned music in cathedral choir schools. Those active in Mary’s reign experienced a daily diet of Gregorian chant, the greatest source of pure melody in the Western tradition. It is not surprising, therefore, that their polyphonic music is so expressively melodic, featuring particularly telling interplay of tuneful motifs in all voices. Where most music on the Continent (with the notable exception of the “Roman school” of Palestrina) became progressively more harmonic in orientation in the course of the sixteenth century—meaning that it more and more featured a prominent melody in the top voice supported by lower voices that created a chordal foundation—English sacred music continued its pursuit of truly independent voices engaged in a polyphonic conversation. Such music is less dramatic than the almost theatrical effects of Continental polyphony of the time, but it is richer in detail, more rewarding of close listening, more harmonically subtle. This is the glory of the Tudor tradition, from the Eton Choirbook, copied during the reign of Henry VII ca. 1500, to the death of Elizabeth in 1603, with the greatest composers active and the greatest music originating in the fifty-year reign of the two Tudor queens.
Like the Renaissance generally, music printing came late to England, with the first musical print from movable type appearing in 1575, three quarters of a century after Ottaviano de’ Petrucci’s pioneering music prints using this technology, the first of which appeared in Venice in 1501. None of the music composed for Mary Tudor, therefore, appeared in print during her lifetime. Even in Elizabeth’s reign, most music continued to be transmitted in manuscript. Frustratingly for historians, much of the sacred music of both Mary and Elizabeth’s reigns survives today only in anthologies copied many years after the fact. How then can we separate what was written for Mary from what was written for Elizabeth, since both monarchs showed a liking for sacred music in Latin? Daniel Page first proposed what now seems an obvious method: since Elizabeth had banned the Latin Sarum rite in 1559, and all the Gregorian chant associated with it, nearly all music from the time of the two queens that places a premium on chant, whether as cantus firmus, as a model for paraphrase, or in verses that alternate with verses in polyphony in a manner known as alternatim, can be considered a product of Mary’s reign—for her composers championed the chant of the Sarum rite as one means of changing England’s religion from Anglican back to Catholic. This explains why all the pieces attributed to Mary’s reign in this concert feature Gregorian chant prominently (as in White’s Christe qui lux es, where the chant is in the top voice in an unbroken stream of long notes) or foundationally (as in the Tallis’s Puer natus Mass, where the chant cantus firmus determines the harmonies but is itself almost inaudible within a sea of other voices).
It is unlikely that the Latin music for Elizabeth, on the other hand, would ever have been based on chant, since Elizabeth herself had banned the Sarum rite and its music. Nevertheless, the same sublety, elegance, and compositional mastery is evident in Elizabeth’s Latin music as in Mary’s. William Byrd may only have composed a few pieces by the time Mary died in 1558. Nearly all his output, therefore, can be assigned to Elizabeth’s reign. (His setting of Christe qui lux es, clearly modeled on the similar setting by White, is thought to be one of his earliest works. We position it in this concert on the cusp, as it were, between Mary and Elizabeth, since it might have been composed during the reign of either queen.) With Tallis, who was already in his prime when Mary ascended the throne in 1553, we are forced to rely on Page’s method to separate Mary’s from Elizabeth’s works. The significant point that emerges from comparing the music for the Tudor queens is that both monarchs presided over the creation of Latin music of extraordinary skill and aural appeal. It is posterity’s good fortune that Mary considered sacred music important enough to subsidize its return to an elevated style after the experiments of Edward’s reign; and posterity’s further good fortune that Elizabeth similarly valued elevated music sufficiently to patronize complex Latin works for the Chapel Royal at a time when sacred music for the Anglican church was generally prescribed to be in a simpler style and in English. While, therefore, we can differentiate Mary’s Latin music from Elizabeth’s by the filter of Gregorian chant, in actual compositional quality and style the works of both monarchs seem nearly indistinguishable. The only significant difference may be that the most extended and imposing works seem to be from Mary’s reign, Elizabeth’s works being rather less grandiose.
In the case of Tallis, a further stylistic difference between music for Mary or for Elizabeth is that the late works from the 1570s—music, therefore, for Elizabeth, such as In ieiunio et fletu or Derelinquit impious—show greater harmonic daring than the Salvator mundi setting and the Puer natus Mass from Mary’s reign. Strikingly, each of the five voices in the later pieces enters on a different pitch of the scale, the last voice to enter in In ieiunio doing so on a note that is not even in the initial scale. Do we see here the teacher (Tallis) taking a cue from his student (Byrd)? For Byrd in even his earliest works shows unusual harmonic daring, a case in point being the third section of his six-voice O lux beata Trinitas, where three of the six voices are in a highly irregular canon at the lower fifth and upper fourth, with the lead voice introducing F-naturals in a sea of F-sharps and C-sharps in the non-canonic voices, causing the resolutions at the lower fifth and upper fourth to introduce B-flats within that same sea. The arcane harmonies that result stretch our conception of what was possible in Renaissance style.
Henry Purcell began his career with a look back to the glories of the Tudor years. In June, July, and August of the year 1680, at the age of 20 (he was born 10 September 1659), he wrote fifteen “fantazias” for from three to seven melody instruments. The instruments he had in mind were violas da gamba. The nine four-part fantazias are dated (10 June 1680, 11 June 1680, 14 June 1680, 19 June 1680, 19/22 June 1680, 23 June 1680, 30 June 1680, 18/19 August 1680, 31 August 1680), from which it can be seen that Purcell completed these works quickly, in one case in a single day—a further aspect of the tour-de-force nature of this repertoire, considered by many to be the greatest works for gamba consort ever written.
Purcell’s fantazias mark the end of the era of gamba consort music that began under Henry VIII and flourished throughout the first half of the seventeenth century. Our justification for including two of these works here is that the gamba tradition arose in the milieu of vocal music, specifically of sacred polyphony, for most of the English gambists began their careers as choirboys in the cathedrals. Their training included singing, playing keyboards, and playing gambas. The music for gamba consort drew perforce from the choral style the choirboys practiced day in and day out. It was, as a result, a vocal style, idiomatic to the human voice. That feature is still present in the Purcell fantazias, which harken back in their compositional technique to the contrapuntal tradition of motets and anthems by the likes of White, Tallis, and Byrd. Indeed, the harmonic language of the fantazias seems directly derived from Tallis’s and Byrd’s most extreme efforts. Not surprisingly, therefore, Purcell’s fantazias practically beg to be sung. Importantly, from our point of view, they are the only such vocally-friendly instrumental music that Purcell wrote, for he soon thereafter moved on to music for violins and for the theater.
Having myself listened to the Purcell fantazias for many years (somewhat wistfully, for they were not music a vocal ensemble could perform), it struck me one day that I might be able to find a contemporaneous poem that could be set to one of them as a contrafact so that Purcell’s wonderful polyphonic lines could be sung. The tradition of texting instrumental music for singers goes back to the early years of the sixteenth century, when we find works like Heinrich Isaac’s three-voice instrumental carmen “La Morra” supplied with a Latin sacred text, Reple tuorum corda fidelium, in the Nikolaus Apel Codex. By a stroke of luck I came across the seventeenth-century poet Richard Crashaw’s Song early in my search for a Purcell contrafact poem, and this turned out to be an uncannily good fit for the Fantazia Upon One Note—an amazing piece in five parts, one voice of which simply sounds a single note throughout, while the other parts engage in music of such harmonic diversity that it doesn’t seem possible that they all revolve around one pitch. Pomerium premiered the texted Fantazia Upon One Note in a public performance in 2010. Next I searched for a poem that could serve as a contrafact for the equally amazing four-part Fantazia à 4, No. 7. John Donne’s Holy Sonnet I, Thou hast made me, has just the right mood of anguish to correspond to the excruciating cross relations that characterize the long first part of this piece. And when the music moves to a new section in fast notes, the poem introduces the words “and death meets me as fast,” a perfect fit. To set the entire poem comfortably to the existing music required repeating the final section as a petite reprise, but this was easily done and seems not to have had a negative effect on the Fantazia as pure music. First premiered in a private performance by Pomerium in December 2013, Fantazia à 4, No. 7, in its sung form will be heard by most listeners for the first time in this concert.
Adapting the Purcell fantazias to the human voice did require considerable rearranging of passages from one octave to another, even occasional exchanges of parts, and the transposition of the Fantazia Upon One Note from F major to C major, for viols have a larger range than most human voices. The goal of the arrangements, however, was for the musical character, the motifs, and the harmonies of the originals to be retained intact. It is to be hoped that both Purcell pieces heard here will be recognized as true reminiscences of the gamba fantasia’s origin as a choristers’ genre in the sixteenth century, hence closely atuned spiritually and melodically to the vocal and instrumental polyphony composed for the Tudor queens.