Sacred song and the Tudors

by Ken Myers

[This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Touchstone magazine. Recordings of each of the musical works mentioned are assembled at the bottom of this page.]

During the sixteenth century, the Church was still the most significant patron of musical composition and performance. Opera had not yet been born nor had the orchestra (as we now understand it), and public concerts were quite rare until the eighteenth century. Some professional musicians were employed by wealthy royal and noble patrons, but even a great deal of the work produced by court composers was for use in private chapels, so a large proportion of music emanating from “secular” settings was still liturgical in intent.

But the Church of the sixteenth century was undergoing dramatic changes, not only doctrinally and structurally but musically as well. The Reformation was significantly a movement to reform the Church’s liturgical life, and that affected what church musicians were expected to do (and not to do). Nowhere was the ecclesiastical/musical turmoil more confusing than in England, where the prospects for a church musician were at times as uncertain as those of any one of Henry VIII’s brides.

Consider the career of Thomas Tallis, who is widely regarded (in the words of musicologist Peter Le Huray) as “one of the most imaginative and accomplished composers of his day,” and some would say one of the greatest English composers of all days. “Tallis, born in the 16th century’s first decade,” writes BBC music critic Andrew Stewart, “came of age as a musician under a system wedded to pre-Reformation customs and rites. He went on to write music for a church unrecognisable from that of his upbringing.”

Four Royal Eras

Biographers and music historians don’t know much about Tallis’s early life. It is generally assumed that he was born around 1505, possibly in Kent. We know that in 1532 Tallis was appointed organist at the Benedictine Priory at Dover. In 1538, he took the post of senior “singing-man” (probably the choir master) at Waltham Abbey, which, in 1540, was the last abbey in England to be dissolved. Tallis received 20 shillings in severance pay and ended up for a brief time in the choir at Canterbury Cathedral, where the recently appointed archbishop was Thomas Cranmer.

In 1543, he began his service of the Crown as a singer, organist, and composer for the Chapel Royal. There he continued to work until his death in 1585, somehow managing to thrive during the reigns of four monarchs. As conductor Andrew Carwood writes, “Amongst his output are large-scale votive antiphons for Henry VIII, shorter pieces in English for Edward VI, liturgical music for Mary, and liturgical and domestic motets in English and Latin for Elizabeth.”

In each of these royal eras, liturgical expectations from church musicians presented artistic challenges, and no composer faced them with more versatility and artfulness than did Tallis. Consider, for example, the spare simplicity of his setting of a few verses from John 14, If ye love me, one of the best-known pieces of his Edwardian period. Another English (and very Protestant) anthem, O Lord, in thee is all my trust, is a cross between the style of the Genevan Psalter and an English ballad. When, near the end of the last verse, the text reads “where angels sing continually,” Tallis interrupts the general sturdiness of the piece with a playful ringing out of the syllables of “con-tin-u-al-ly,” hinting at the delight of angelic song.

Mary I’s brief reign formed something of a “middle period” for Tallis and he returned to the Latin and polyphonic richness of his youth, but now with even greater eloquence and confidence. His large-scale votive antiphon Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater (“Rejoice, O glorious Mother of God”) is assumed by some scholars to be an early, pre-Reformation work. But the craftsmanship of the piece suggests a more mature composer’s hand. As Carwood notes,

[T]his text in nine sections each beginning with the word ‘Gaude’ would have been just the sort of piece that Mary Tudor might have wanted to hear, one which could knit together both the old and new: a celebration of the world of her youth in its form and text and, through its very composition, a bedrock for her new Catholic order.

Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558. Tallis had been working at the Chapel Royal for a decade and a half, and now was expected to shift gears once more as the Church of England again cut ties with Rome (though the new queen was not as intolerant toward “Romish” musical manners as had the Regency Council of the boy-king Edward VI).

Elizabethan Tribute

In 1575, Tallis and his one-time student, William Byrd (then organist at the Chapel Royal), secured from the queen a monopoly on the printing in England of music and music paper, an arrangement that also banned the importing of printed music from abroad. They soon expressed their gratitude to Elizabeth by the publication of Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, a collection of thirty-four Latin motets, seventeen works by each composer in honor of the seventeenth year of Elizabeth’s reign. While they failed to turn a profit on this ambitious project (musicians aren’t always the shrewdest players in the marketplace), the compositions in that collection are extraordinary.

Included among the works by Tallis in Cantiones sacrae is his five-part setting of In manus tuas, a responsory sung at compline: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. You have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.” In two minutes of well-proportioned sound, Tallis establishes a sense of expectant solemnity.

A similar gem in this collection is O nata lux, the office hymn at Lauds of the Feast of the Transfiguration. The first half of this brief text reads: “O Light born of Light, Jesus, redeemer of the world, with loving-kindness deign to receive suppliant praise and prayer.” Tallis ornaments a succession of four-beat melodic phrases with rich, inviting harmonies that shine with a warm, comforting glow, not a dazzling brightness.

The largest piece by Tallis in this 1575 Elizabethan tribute is a seven-voice setting of Suscipe quaeso Domine, a devotional soliloquy by Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636). The text is an intense cry for mercy: “For if thou shalt remember iniquities, who could endure it?” Musicologist Kerry Robin McCarthy suggests that this work’s inclusion in Cantiones sacrae is a conscious reminder of a time before the fracturing of the Church, and a recognition that disunity (especially as experienced by the English church) is an occasion for penitence. Near the middle of the piece, the phrase “gratia tua” (by your grace) is repeated with a commanding urgency.

Mournful Elegy

When Tallis died, ten years after the publication of Cantiones sacrae, William Byrd — 35 years his junior — conveyed his grief at the loss of his colleague and mentor in a mournful elegy, usually sung by countertenor accompanied by viols:

Ye sacred Muses, race of Jove,
whom Music’s lore delighteth,
Come down from crystal heav’ns above
to earth where sorrow dwelleth,
In mourning weeds, with tears in eyes:
Tallis is dead, and Music dies.

The sentiment is understandable, if finally pagan rather than Christian. Music did not die with Tallis. Tallis’s own music is to this day sung in divine services somewhere every week, and it continues admirably to serve the Church and its true and loving King.

Performances of works
mentioned in this essay

If ye love me

The King’s Singers, recorded while under quarantine in 2020

O Lord, in thee is all my trust

Alamire, directed by David Skinner

Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater

The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips

In manus tuas

The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips

O nata lux

The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers

Suscipe quaeso Domine

Alamire, directed by David Skinner

William Byrd, Ye sacred Muses

Countertenor Matthew White, with the viols of Les Voix Baroques