|Mary Tudor’s motto was Veritas temporis filia—“Truth, the daughter of time.” For her the truth was true religion, the old religion of her grandfather, Henry VII, of her mother, Catherine of Aragon, of her cousin, Emperor Charles V, of his son and her husband, Philip II. Truth was Roman Catholicism. She regarded it as only a matter of time before this truth would win out over the error of her father, Henry VIII, and of her half-brother, Edward VI, whose English Protestantism rejected allegiance to the pope, veneration of Mary, and, perhaps most importantly from Mary’s perspective, celebration of the Latin Mass.
Were Mary alive today, she would no doubt see the present concert celebrating her musical and liturgical achievements as the triumph of her motto and proof that it was not just a slogan but a law of history. Yet it has taken four and a half centuries since her death in 1558 for this “truth” to emerge. The religious history of England following Mary’s death witnessed the firm establishment of English Protestantism, from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II; the banishment of the Latin rite from English churches; the Anglican rejection of the “divine” status of Mary; and, more politically, allegiance to the pope as heresy and, for many years, treason. Moreover, Protestant historians have attacked Mary Tudor personally, even quite recently portraying her as “Bloody Mary,” a ruthless, reactionary, and ultimately “alien” presence on the English throne. In 1964 A.G. Dickens characterized her years as queen as a period of “exceptional religious and cultural sterility.” David Loades in 1965 concurred in the judgment of Mary as “a Spaniard at heart.” And in 1977 Geoffrey R. Elton described Mary as “arrogant, bigoted, stubborn, suspicious and (not to put too fine a point on it) rather stupid.”
Her achievements in the arts have been seen as steps backwards, obstructing the development of English music and ritual. In this view, the five years she ruled, beginning in 1553, were a time of religious and cultural blindness best overlooked and forgotten. Even music historians have tended to dismiss the music written for Mary as old-fashioned and generally uninteresting.
Only with Daniel Bennett Page’s “Uniform and Catholic: Church Music in the Reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558)” (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1996) has a new assessment of Mary and her music begun to emerge. Page takes note of the “unprecedented scale, complexity, and systematic unity” of Mary’s music, “ranging from seven- and eight-voice festal polyphony, through motets and antiphons dense with allegorical meaning, to larger cycles of choral and organ hymns and antiphons.” He finds that “Mary’s regime cultivated musical repertories sophisticated in their symbolic content and innovative in their compositional design.”
Mary’s senior ecclesiastical advisor, cardinal and papal legate Reginald Pole, archbishop of Canterbury, taught that the outward observances of liturgical ceremony “wyll gyve more light than all the readynge of Scrypture can doe,” a belief Page characterizes as a “pastoral theology of Catholic ritual.” Pole himself seems not to have been enthusiastic about complex music, but we can easily understand how his views on ceremony in general might be translated by others into a passion for rich-textured, sonorously impressive polyphony.
Initially, Mary’s focus as queen was to restore the Sarum rite (the traditional Catholic rite of England), outlawed under Edward’s 1549 Act of Uniformity. The Act Against Superstitious Books and Images of the following year ordered the destruction of all Latin ceremonial books and all specifically Catholic images. With choirs, altars, and organs having been disbanded, dissolved, or dismantled under Henry VIII and Edward, it was no simple matter to restore the elaborate ritual and magnificence of the Old Religion. That Mary was so successful in this endeavor can be accounted for in three ways. In the first place, under Henry VIII and Edward, Protestantism had not taken hold with the people to the degree it was to do under Elizabeth I. Much of the Catholic tradition remained in memory and still felt familiar and comfortable. Secondly, composers and singers welcomed the opportunity to test the limits of their abilities in creating the most impressive and “artistic” music possible. Their charge was to pursue the aesthetic of intellectually demanding composition, rejecting all that was “Protestant” and “simple” in favor of abstract, even obscure, musical effects. Thus, the music during Mary’s reign was unusually splendid and impressive. Thirdly, Mary showed formidable skill in her ability to organize and motivate, and she was not one to back down when confronted with opposition. Those who felt an allegiance to Catholicism found in her a champion of uncommon courage and strength.
“Restoration” for musicians meant, first of all, a return to Latin music, most prominently the Gregorian chant of the Sarum rite, and, more particularly still, music for the Mass and Office. Chant-based works had always represented a substantial percentage of the English sacred polyphony composed prior to the advent of Protestantism. Now, under Mary, composers cultivated chant-based polyphony aggressively, using chant not only as a cantus firmus (foundation voice) or as a melodic source for points of imitation but also as an emblematic element, proclaiming Catholic orthodoxy for all to hear. Gregorian chant thus assumed the symbolic role of signifying the restoration of the Catholic liturgy.
Mary’s composers utilized chant in a variety of ways. The equal-note “emblematic” style featured the chant in a chain of equal long notes, either in the highest voice, as in Parsons’s Iam Christus astra ascenderat and White’s Christe, qui lux es et dies, or in the tenor, as in White’s Regina coeli. Tallis adopts a more subtle approach in his hymn settings, though one equally “abstract”: he first presents the chant melody (in the highest voice) in triple meter, switching to duple meter for the final polyphonic verse. In his Salvator mundi the result is a tour-de-force, where a chant clearly intended for free declamation (as can be heard in verses 1 and 3, sung in unaccompanied chant) is forced into triple meter (verses 2 and 4) and into the equally awkward duple meter (verse 5). Since the melody does not fit naturally into either triple or duple meter, Tallis must resort to ingenious melodic and harmonic strategems in each polyphonic verse to arrive at a final cadence in a way that makes musical sense.
How are we to understand a compositional approach that elevates ingenuity and difficulty above simplicity and tunefulness? To say that Mary’s composers were merely cultivating a style opposed to and the opposite of all that defined “Protestant” music does not tell the whole story. Complex, elaborate music had been the hallmark of the English Catholic tradition from the time of the Old Hall Manuscript (early 15th century) and before. The tradition was essentially medieval in orientation, and, indeed, Tallis’s procedure in his hymns recalls the earliest medieval motets, where one finds chant melodies transformed into motet tenors by their arbitrary rearrangement into repeating rhythmic patterns. The striking feature of the procedure is the subjugation of melody to non-musical—and therefore musically arbitrary—patterning. To the extent that the approach is the consequence of a philosophical premise, a medieval composer might explain that that which is “mathematical,” “unchanging,” and “essential” will always take priority over that which is “accidental.” In the medieval motet, the unchanging feature was the pattern. In Tallis’s hymn settings it was the meter. In both cases, the chant underwent transformation by virtue of an unyielding principle. The challenge for the medieval composer, as for Tallis, was to create under these intellectual constraints a work of music that still made musical sense. Tallis went further, creating music that has strong sensual appeal by virtue of its sonorities and colorful harmonies.
In his 7-voice Missa Puer natus est, Tallis subjects the chant cantus firmus to an even more formidably abstract treatment, far removed from easy recognition: he assigns each cantus firmus note a duration based on the vowel associated with it in the original Christmas Mass introit. The vowels have the values a=1, e=2, i=3, o=4, u=5. Thus, for the first three notes, G, d, d, originally sung to the word “Puer” (G-d on the syllable “Pu-” and d on “er”), the durations are: five semibreves of G, five semibreves of d, then two more semibreves of d. The five semibreves of G are further obscured by being divided into a dotted breve followed by an undotted breve, the division being a function of the natural declamation of the Mass text. Credit for recognizing the chant melody and for determining the arcane key by which Tallis assigned each note its duration belongs to English scholar John Caldwell. Page believes that Tallis’s procedure alludes to Mary’s motto Veritas temporis filia by way of its “highly atypical manipulation of temporal values.” We might speculate further that deriving the “time” of each note from the “Puer natus” text represents another form of “truth,” the truth that the original text and melody together had a status derived directly from heaven and expressible by the translation of the vowels into numerical equivalents. Tallis’s choice of chant cantus firmus also has symbolic significance—it refers to Mary Tudor’s pregnancy in 1554, a pregnancy that promised Mary an heir and England a future monarch by filial descent. Not only did a pregnancy at this point in Mary’s career (she was 37) border on the miraculous, inspiring comparisons with the Biblical Sarah, Rachel, and Anna, but it was easily seen to be part of God’s plan to guarantee Mary’s “Catholic” restoration into the future. That the Puer natus est Mass should be for seven voices is also no accident: the seven-voice texture points to Mary Tudor as the earthly counterpart of the heavenly Mary, whose number was traditionally understood to be seven because of her seven sorrows, seven joys, seven acts of mercy, etc. (In the event, Queen Mary had what appears to have been a “phantom pregnancy,” which left no heir.)
Neither Tye’s Kyrie Orbis factor nor his Missa Euge bone has been securely dated, but both can be assigned to Mary’s reign: Kyrie Orbis factor because it requires alternatim performance with Gregorian chant, the Missa Euge bone because of its title. Both works eschew the use of cantus firmus or other predictable effects in favor of densely packed, irregular points of imitation and biting dissonances. Page argues convincingly that the words “Euge bone,” which come from the parable of the “good and faithful servant,” refer to a pair of sermons by John Harpsfield and James Brooks delivered and published in the autumn of 1553. Both sermons put special emphasis on the words “Euge bone” (Matthew 25: 211; Luke 19:17), which the two preachers found applicable to Mary. According to their argument, Mary, for having restored Catholicism to England, was a “faithful servant,” and, having been faithful over a few things, she could now be expected to have power over many. Harpsfield explicitly compared Mary to Judith, Hester, and Deborah, while Brooks compared her to Judith, the Virgin Mary, Saint Helena, and Catherine of Aragon—all devoutly religious women. The words “Euge bone” thus took on a symbolic meaning in Mary’s reign, widely understood to refer to her as God’s agent in having effected the restoration of English Catholicism.
As mentioned above, White’s setting of the Compline hymn Christe qui lux es et dies places the chant melody in the highest voice in slow-moving breves. Beneath it four supporting voices create a rich, English-style harmony replete with cross relations between B-flat and B-natural, F-sharp and F-natural, C-sharp and C-natural. In another setting of the same hymn, also set with verses in richly harmonized chant alternating with unaccompanied unison chant verse by verse, White had the harmonizing voices sing note for note with the chant voice, which sang the chant in the same rhythm as in the unaccompanied verses. Byrd also tried his hand at this latter technique in what is considered one of his earliest works. But Byrd did White one better, by harmonizing all verses except the first and last, with the chant melody migrating from voice to voice in each succeeding verse (Bassus to Tenor to Contratenor to Altus to Superius). Since Byrd’s setting survives only in the so-called Dow partbooks of 1581-88, there is no proof that he wrote it during Mary’s reign, but if the supposition that it represents the experimental effort of a composer not yet in his 20th year is true, we can safely date it to that time. Its emphasis on Gregorian chant as a foundation of the texture is something it has in common with all the other works on this afternoon’s program, all of which singly and together attest to Mary Tudor’s central role in the revitalization of Latin music for the Catholic rite in the years 1553 to 1558.
Our concert ends with one of the most extraordinary works of the Renaissance, a motet in forty parts (eight five-voice choirs) by Thomas Tallis. Why was this work written? A letter written in 1611 by a law student named Thomas Wateridge contains the following anecdote: In Queene Elizabeths time there was a songe sent into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned the name to be called the Apices of the world) which beeinge songe made[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of __________ bearing a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our English men could sett as good a songe, & Tallice beinge very skillfull was felt to try whether he would undertake the Matter, which he did and mad[e] one of 40 p[ar]ts which was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house which so farre surpassed the other th[a]t the Duke hearinge of the songe tooke his chayne of gold from of his neck & putt yt about Tallice his necke & gave yt him.
In his revised Tudor Church Music edition of Spem in alium of 1966, Philip Brett surmised that this remarkable work “was possibly conceived in the…spirit of patriotic endeavour, and may well have been performed on some great state occasion in the reign of Mary or Elizabeth.” Denis Stevens in 1982 made the case for the reign of Elizabeth, believing that Spem in alium must have had a model, as in Wateridge’s anecdote, the most likely one being a forty-voice work by Alessandro Striggio. Striggio first visited London in 1567, almost a decade after Mary’s death. Stevens therefore put the date of Spem in alium sometime after 1567. This view has been widely accepted ever since, but not by eveyone.
In 2002, George Steel published an online article in Andante magazine in which he proposed that Tallis’s extraordinary forty-voice motet dates not from Elizabeth I’s reign but from Mary Tudor’s. He pointed out that the surviving manuscripts of Spem in alium show a Latin text “drawn from the Biblical book of Judith as used in the Sarum (i.e., pre-Reformation English) liturgy of the Historia Judith.” To understand the significance of this, it must be remembered that Mary Tudor was regarded as a modern Judith because of her beheading of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who had tried to put the Protestant Lady Jane Grey on the throne upon the death of Edward VI. (Jane Grey actually reigned for nine days, until Mary arrived in London with an immense crowd of supporters to claim the throne.) “Briefly, the story of Judith (as related in the Apocryphal book of the same name) runs thus: Judith (read: Mary), a pious and beautiful widow, defends her homeland from the Assyrian army by cutting off the head of its treacherous commander Holofernes (read: Northumberland).”
The earliest record of Spem in alium is in a catalogue from the library at Nonsuch Palace made in 1596, which lists ‘a song of fortie partes, made by Mr. Tallys.’ Henry VIII commissioned the building of Nonsuch in 1538 with the purpose of having it rival in splendor such palaces as Fontainebleau in France. Mary inherited Nonsuch upon her accession in 1553 and sold it in 1556 to Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel and an ardent supporter of her claim to the throne. After Mary’s death Nonsuch would become, in Steel’s words, a “great center for the Catholic cause and a hotspot for Catholic music.” When Henry VIII died in 1547, the building was not yet finished. It is believed that Fitzalan undertook the completion himself. The banqueting hall was octagonal in shape, as were the palace’s two octagonal five-storey towers (to honor Henry VIII’s name?). Nonsuch was destroyed in 1682, but according to the gazeteer Gatehouse, the banqueting hall “survives as a raised, 1m high octagonal platform, with four circular corner bastions.” It was a building “of two storeys with viewing balconies.” If Spem in alium was indeed composed for performance in the banqueting hall, as the surviving evidence tempts us to believe, the eight choirs would have been positioned above the listeners in a complete circle.
The decision to write for forty voices surely has significance, in light of Tallis’s habit of modeling large-scale compositions on symbolic, numeric frameworks. Even the length of Spem appears to have symbolic meaning: 138 breves = 69 imperfect longs. The name “Tallis” spelled numerically in gematria is 69. Note also that the first time all forty voices in Spem sound together occurs in the 40th bar. Mary celebrated her fortieth birthday on 16 February 1556, the same year she sold Nonsuch to Fitzalan. Of course, the birthday argument could also be used to support the claim for Elizabeth, in that she turned forty in 1573.
But further ruling in favor of Mary are the additional considerations presented by Steel, namely, that a text taken from the Historia Judith points to Mary, not Elizabeth, since it was Mary who was associated with the Biblical Judith. Significantly, the Latin words, a paraphrased version of those in the Latin Bible, are taken from the Sarum breviary, the official liturgical service book during Mary’s reign (permanently superseded by the English Book of Common Prayer when Elizabeth abolished the Sarum rite in 1559). What more appropriate gesture of gratitude from one of the great Catholic families of England—which as of 1556, and thanks to Mary, owned one of the most magnificent buildings in Europe—than to commission for the queen a present such as this in her fortieth year, a monumental prayer of piety for forty voices by England’s most celebrated composer? The text reinforces the conceit of Mary as a modern Judith who saved her people from Protestantism. The music reflects Mary’s love of extraordinarily rich, complex textures. And a first performance at Nonsuch would have helped further cement the bond between Mary and Fitzalan, one of her most loyal defenders against ever-present Protestant intrigue.