To listen to this show, you must first LOG IN. If you have already logged in, but you are still seeing this message, please SUBSCRIBE or UPGRADE your subscriber level today.

Program: #17-31, Air Date: 07/24/17

The masterful conductor of the Choir of Westminster Abbey takes us through some of his recent recordings of music from the Elizabethan era. All recordings feature The Choir of Westminster Abbey conducted by James O’Donnell.

I. Mary and Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey. (Hyperion CD CDA67704).

CDA67704 - Mary and Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey

What might have been going through John Sheppard’s mind in late November 1558? Whether or not he had an inkling that his own death was only a month away, we can readily imagine that his thoughts were focused on the recent death of Queen Mary, which must even without our long historical perspective have seemed a momentous event—though only the latest of many Sheppard had witnessed.
Born into the apparently stable, Catholic England of the 1510s, Sheppard was a young man when Henry VIII plunged the country into religious and political turmoil over his ambitions to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. By the time Sheppard was composing in the mid-1530s, Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury, and reforming pressure was being exerted on the Church and her liturgies. In 1547, six years into Sheppard’s tenure as Informator Choristarum at Magdalen College, Oxford, the speed and ferocity of reform suddenly reached a radical new level with the accession of Edward VI, a puppet king for the aggressively Protestant regimes of Somerset and Northumberland. During Edward’s reign—the high noon of sixteenth-century English Protestantism—church musicians were required by edict to set vernacular texts with maximum clarity; and texts not drawn directly from the Bible itself were severely frowned upon. Those that invoked the Blessed Virgin Mary, or even saints, were outlawed. A generation of composers was forced to abandon both the rich heritage of the Latin repertory, and the musical language in which they had been trained and expressed themselves—Sarum chant and polyphony (the latter often based upon the former).

Then, in 1553, Edward’s older half-sister Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, succeeded him. Links with Rome were re-established, and a vigorous campaign to reconfirm Catholicism as the national religion was begun—not that the majority of Mary’s subjects seems to have needed much convincing. Sheppard, by now a Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, saw much of the Latin Office music he had composed in Henry’s reign pressed back into service, and, with Tallis, Tye, and other colleagues, began to compose once more for the Latin rite. The next generation of composers, too young to have been active before the 1540s, also contributed to the musical arm of what has often been mis-termed the ‘Marian Reaction’. (The short-lived but organized and vibrant activity of the resurgent English Catholic Church has been shown, notably by Eamon Duffy, better to deserve description as the ‘English Counter-Reformation’.) Among these young men were William Mundy and William Byrd, both of whom were (probably, in the case of Byrd) choristers in the choir of Westminster Abbey.

Late Tudor religion was a pendulum that tended to swing to extremes. The oscillation between traditional and reformed religion makes it impossible to date with confidence much of the Latin music of the mid-sixteenth century. Much of the music traditionally assumed to have been written in Mary’s reign may largely have been composed in, or originated in compositions of, the Henrician period; many of its ‘modern’ features may be attributable to pressure exerted by Henrician reformers. It would be entirely in keeping with the Marian regime’s Counter-Reformation orientation to have seen no reason to reverse these reforms, which approved of strictly liturgical music and, where ‘paraliturgical’ music was required, texts from the Book of Psalms, rather than the richly encrusted votive texts of earlier Tudor polyphony. Thus there are no reliable stylistic grounds for distinguishing between late Henrician and Marian polyphony.

The brevity of Edward’s reign allows for more accurate dating of Anglican music of the mid-century; for example, the simple ‘commandment anthems’, and other straightforward presentations of New Testament texts by Sheppard and Tallis, are assumed to be Edwardine, though the picture is complicated by the existence of more elaborate English music by Sheppard which must also date from 1547–53. The repertoire for this disc has, however, been assembled around a piece of music that has been dated to the period following Elizabeth’s accession on November 17 1558. Sheppard’s Second Service (of which the evening canticles are recorded here) may have been produced following orders from the Queen to the Chapel Royal composers, specifying the revival not of the Calvinistic 1552 Book of Common Prayer, but its more moderate, and ceremonially more permissive predecessor of 1549. In the event Elizabeth was forced to adopt the 1552 Book, but not, it seems, before a few settings had been made of the 1549 texts.

Sheppard’s poor health in the last months of 1558 make the proposition that he composed a full morning and evening service de novo implausible, though not completely impossible—perhaps the service was at least partly written between 1549 and 1552. But even if the Second Service is not Sheppard’s swansong, it bears musical witness to one last swing of the pendulum, and in a sense anticipates the ‘settlement’ eventually made between the Elizabethan Church and its elite composers, a ‘third way’ that elegantly avoided the iconoclasm of earlier attempts at reform while fulfilling certain of its intentions. The Second Service is no austere presentation of text unadulterated by musical fancy; while remaining almost entirely syllabic, the music is richly textured and imitative, makes use of antiphony between the two sides of the choir, and is conceived on a grand scale—indeed, it is thus the forerunner of the ‘Great’ Services of Byrd, Weelkes, Tomkins and others. It is inconceivable that Sheppard heard it performed by Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal, for he was buried on 21 December, three weeks before Elizabeth’s coronation; he is likely to be the same ‘John Scheperde’ interred in the churchyard of St Margaret’s, Westminster, in the shadow of the Abbey.

November 1558 is the chronological centrepoint of this disc. The first half of the programme consists of music performed (not necessarily in all cases composed) during Mary’s reign; the second half, beginning with the evening canticles from Sheppard’s Second Service, explores something of the immense variety of sacred music produced during the subsequent, much longer and more celebrated reign of Mary’s Protestant half-sister.

Like Sheppard, Christopher Tye’s career straddles the reigns of Henry, Edward, and Mary; and he survived until the early 1570s, spending most of the final, Elizabethan portion of his life as a priest in the Diocese of Ely. His psalm motet Omnes gentes, plaudite manibus may be either Henrician or Marian, though its concision and tightly wound rhythmic drive, and the fact that it remains in duple metre throughout, perhaps suggest the latter reign. The voices—especially the treble and contratenor—maintain a high tessitura throughout; this produces a brilliant sound entirely appropriate to the text, which was associated with the Feast of the Ascension in both Catholic and reformed liturgies.

William Mundy was head chorister at Westminster Abbey in 1543, around the time of his fifteenth birthday. He was too young to have written any Latin music during the reign of Henry VIII; his monumental Vox Patris caelestis is therefore unequivocally a Marian composition, and may well have been written for the Feast of the Assumption; the likely place of performance was the church of St Mary-at-Hill in the City of London, whose patronal feast was the Assumption.

The ‘votive antiphon’ (a modern term) belonged to a tradition current for at least a century before Mundy’s time, in which an Office (most usually Vespers or Compline) would be followed by a Commemoration involving an elaborate polyphonic piece on a free text in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary (occasionally of another saint). Several early Henrician examples are extant (by Fayrfax, Ludford, and Taverner among others), but from around 1530 such pieces were targeted by the reformers. When the form became available once again under Mary, it is unsurprising that certain composers seized upon it (equally, the relative paucity of extant Marian votive antiphons compared to properly liturgical pieces and Psalm motets probably reflects the forward- and outward-looking character of the Marian Church, which was not as mired in nostalgia as has been traditionally thought).

If there was a feast of the Church which merited a votive antiphon in the 1550s, it was certainly the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an observance quite beyond the pale for the reformers, for obvious reasons. It is easy to imagine the parishioners of St Mary-at-Hill celebrating their patronal festival all the more enthusiastically after the lean years of Edward’s reign; Mundy rises to the occasion in spectacular and extensive fashion. Vox Patris caelestis is scored for the most opulent voice combination available in the mid-century, a six-part choir with internal divisions known as ‘gimells’. That Mundy maintains our interest over such a vast space of time is remarkable; he achieves a sense of development, even of teleological progress, towards the final full section with its climactic cries of ‘Veni’. This is not achieved by tonal means, but perhaps in terms of sound: Mundy draws us along with a succession of various combinations of voices, heard in alternation with paragraphs for the full choir. The verse sections culminate in the brilliant passage that immediately precedes the piece’s denouement: this is for two trebles, two means and two basses, at ‘Veni ad me, Assuerum verum, Esther’—a text that likely resonated with double significance for the listeners, for Queen Mary had been described as ‘the new Esther’.

While Vox Patris caelestis was probably written for an augmented Parish Church choir, the remaining Latin pieces on this disc were mostly performed by the elite performing force of the land. By 1553 Thomas Tallis had been a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal for ten years; Sheppard joined the Chapel some time in the late 1540s. During the Marian years they seem to have embarked on a joint project to furnish the Chapel with a cycle of liturgical music for the whole year. As none of this music survives in Henrician sources, it is reasonable to assume that at least some of it was newly composed in the 1550s; indeed, some of it may even date from Elizabeth’s reign.

Videte miraculum is the Responsory (or Respond) at First Vespers of the Purification, known in England as Candlemas. The chant on which Tallis bases his polyphony comprises several sections, the full choir alternating with soloist or solo group. Tallis leaves the solo portions as unadorned chant, implanting the choral sections of chant in a six-voice polyphonic texture. This type of Responsory is known as a ‘choral respond’; in a ‘solo respond’, only the solo portions of chant are set. The advantage of the choral respond, which developed from the solo respond in the early sixteenth century, is the dynamic musical structure imposed by the polyphonic setting of the repeating parts of the chant: the form can be summarized, omitting the brief chant intonation, as A-B-C-d-B-C-e-C (solo chant verses in lower case). In Videte miraculum this means the repetition of ‘Stans onerata’ and ‘Et matrem se laetam’ after the first solo chant verse, then, after the second verse, one final repetition of ‘Et matrem’. Tallis exploits this pattern by starting ‘Et matrem’ with a fleeting glimpse of what would now be called the relative major; this unexpected and touching moment gains in effect with each repetition. Most memorable, however, despite being heard only once, is the opening point of imitation on ‘miraculum’—a dissonance, repeated at regular intervals by each entering voice to hypnotic effect.

Sheppard’s first setting of Libera nos, salva nos takes as its text the sixth antiphon at Matins on Trinity Sunday. Its liturgical position was thus about half way through the chief morning Office, as celebrated in its festal form with three nocturns. The text, a petition to the Holy Trinity for freedom, redemption and absolution, is sufficiently general to allow the possibility that Sheppard’s setting was used at other Offices, in the place where votive antiphons had once been sung (and where in Anglican Offices the choir sings the anthem); it is likely that the piece was composed during Sheppard’s time at Magdalen College, Oxford, among whose statutes is the ordinance that this very text be recited twice a day. Unusually, and unlike Sheppard’s Office hymns and responds, the chant cantus firmus is placed in the lowest voice. The rate of harmonic change is consequently very slow; this, and the mode’s tonal stability, accounts for the serenity with which the music unfolds.

William Byrd represented a new generation of composers, and a new generation of English Catholics. Byrd’s formative years as a musician coincided with the brief Catholic renaissance of 1553–8; the earliest music we have by him (it is now thought) was a collaboration with Sheppard and Mundy on the polyphonic verses of the festal Psalm for Easter Day, In exitu Israel, for use at Westminster Abbey. But he was to live the vast majority of his unusually long life under Protestant monarchs. Byrd remained a practising Catholic, while simultaneously pursuing a career in public musical life, first as Organist of Lincoln Cathedral from 1563 until 1572, then as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.

The Psalm setting Teach me, O Lord most probably dates from Byrd’s Lincoln career. It was apparently not designed as an anthem, but as a truly liturgical piece, a festal Psalm to be sung after the Preces; it was popular enough to have found its way (usually as an anthem) into several sources. The piece might almost have been written to exemplify the Royal Injunction that required ‘a modest distinct song, so used in all parts of the common prayers in the church, that the same may be as plainly understood, as if it were read without singing’—though, as Peter Phillips has pointed out, this fundamentally misunderstands the effect of choral singing on text. Nevertheless there is a new intimacy, even compared to Sheppard’s Second Service, between text and music; this is partly due to the verse idiom, in which a soloist alternates with the full choir. A modern listener used to hearing Evensong cannot help noticing the similarity of the full sections, with their regular cadential formulae, to Anglican chant.

A far cry from the mainstream worship of the Elizabethan Church were the Latin motets Byrd published in 1575 with Tallis, and by himself in 1589 and 1591, under the exclusive patent granted to the composers by Queen Elizabeth. In particular the second two publications are open to interpretation as manifestos for the recusant Catholic community, containing as they do prayers asking for mercy ‘for us rather than for me’, and texts on exile, the desolation of Jerusalem, and the coming of liberation.

Paradoxically, it was the very alienation of the Church from its Catholic heritage that allowed Byrd to select his own texts, free from liturgical necessity, and to set them in a way entirely his own, free from the influence of chant. Thus we meet in Byrd’s Cantiones sacrae a new, personal expressivity; and the context in which the collection was assembled only adds to our sense of personal connection with him, across the years. It seems likely that Byrd, like many recusants, became more militant after the gruesome execution of Fr Edmund Campion and two other Jesuit priests in 1581; certainly much of the imagery in Byrd’s 1589 and 1591 motets would have been familiar to fellow recusants from Jesuit pamphlets and other material. Of these probably the best known is Ne irascaris, Domine. The bitterness of the prophet’s call to God is married with the sweetest music; the lament over Jerusalem is intensified almost to unbearable extremes, the final phrase ‘desolata est’ heard no fewer than 54 times.

Byrd escaped serious censure for his recusancy, thanks to the patronage of the Queen and certain of her courtiers. Byrd’s music—a huge repertoire not only of sacred vocal music in Latin and English, but of songs, madrigals, consort music and works for keyboard—embodies the paradox of his life. He was, to some extent, both courtier and conspirator, a pillar of the establishment and an illegal. These were not his double standards, of course, but the government’s: the Rural Recusant was more-or-less free to go about his private business as long as the Gentleman of the Chapel Royal came up with loyal musical goods when occasion demanded. Yet it is hard to detect cynicism in the music with which Byrd kept his side of the bargain. Perhaps he realized that the deal had only been brokered because of his immense talent; or perhaps he was simply incapable of unimaginatively fulfilling a brief. Certainly, in the case of the magnificent ‘Great’ Service (recorded by the Abbey Choir on Hyperion CDA67533), he seems to have regarded the provision of music for the Church of England as a challenge to be relished. In the mellifluous full anthem O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth it is tempting to hear actual personal warmth in the music—or is that Elizabethan propaganda, still working after four centuries?

Of all the music on this disc, perhaps the most difficult to date is the majestic Psalm motet Exaudiat te Dominus by Robert White. Born around 1538 in London, White was at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the 1550s; having earned the MusB degree in 1560, he succeeded his father-in-law Tye as Master of the Choristers at Ely Cathedral two years later. Sometime around 1567 he moved to Chester Cathedral, and thence to Westminster Abbey in 1570; he died in post of the plague four years later. It seems unlikely that White’s Psalm motets could have been written during Mary’s reign (White was only a year or two older than Byrd; twenty at Mary’s death). An Elizabethan date seems ineluctable, but the style of White’s Psalms complicates the picture: they are very archaic, harking back in both their structure and sound-world to votive antiphons such as Vox Patris caelestis—itself a consciously archaic piece. The most plausible conclusion is that White heard this repertoire during Mary’s reign, and, having probably composed in the style as a young man, returned to it some years later. For which specific group of performers, if any, the Psalm motets were written is unknown; the ranges are extreme and the vocal lines occasionally rather angular.

The imposing choral texture of the pre-Reformation antiphons is well suited to White’s highly individual style. Though his Psalm motets all start with two- and three-voice verse sections, it is the full choral writing White seems to relish: once he gets going, his polyphony is an irresistible force. This is never more the case than in the final paragraph of Exaudiat, beginning at ‘Domine, salvum fac regem’, where White starts the point of imitation by stealth, in what appears still to be a verse section for divided countertenors and tenors; he then plays in the remaining voices, retaining the gimell in the inner parts, to produce an opulent seven-voice texture, as the music rolls inevitably toward its triumphant final cadence.

The text of Exaudiat te Dominus is a prayer for the monarch—specifically, for victory over his (or her) enemies. There is (as yet) no evidence to suggest a political reading of White’s motet; but at the least it seems remarkable to find an Anglican musician of the mid-sixteenth century setting such a text in Latin, to music that celebrates—or perhaps memorializes—the liturgical life of a vanished age.


Tye, Christopher : Omnes gentes, plaudite manibus, motet for 5 voices
>Mundy, William : Vox patris caelestis
>Tallis, Thomas : Videte miraculum
>Sheppard, John : Libera nos, salve nos (I), for 7 voices
>Sheppard, John : The Second Service, for 5 to 8 voices
>Byrd, William : Teach me, O Lord
>Byrd, William : Liber primus sacrarum cantionum
>Byrd, William : O Lord, make Thy servant Elizabeth, anthem for 6 voices (SAATTB)
>White, Robert : Exaudiat te, Domine


II. TYE: Missa Euge bone, Peccavimus, Western Wynde Mass (Hyperion CD CDA 67928).

Christopher Tye: Missa Euge bone; Peccavimus; Western Wynde Mass

Christopher Tye was a direct contemporary of Thomas Tallis—both composers were born in the first decade of the sixteenth century, around the year 1505. Given the high regard in which both men were held during their lifetimes, it is remarkable that no records survive that point to what either Tallis or Tye was doing before the 1530s. From then on, the biographies of both men come into focus: while Tallis worked at Dover Priory and subsequently at Waltham Abbey (both institutions were dissolved while Tallis was in post) and then moved to Canterbury to sing in the cathedral, Tye supplicated for a Cambridge BMus in 1536 and sang as a lay clerk at King’s College. Both composers became well connected at court, both were extremely adept at writing Latin sacred music for the Roman Catholic Church and English-texted music for the reformed Church of England, and both composers were appointed in their late thirties to important posts which they held with aplomb (Tallis was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in London for over forty years, and Tye was Master of the Choristers at Ely Cathedral for twenty). Neither composer concerned himself to any great degree with writing secular vocal music, yet both were actively involved in the composition of instrumental music—Tallis’s focus was keyboard music, while Tye’s preferred soundworld was that of the viol consort. Their religious leanings were, however, different, although both men individually navigated a safe course through the choppy waters of the politics of the mid-sixteenth century. Tallis was a Roman Catholic, who nevertheless managed to work productively for the Church of England during both Edward VI’s and Queen Elizabeth’s reigns, while Tye had clear Protestant leanings, although he contributed fully to Roman Catholic worship during the reign of Queen Mary. But whereas Tallis was described as ‘mild and quiet’, Tye was considered ‘peevish and humoursome’. This resonates within the music of the two composers: where Tallis’s music is generously persuasive, Tye’s music is wilful. The result is that Tye frequently brings the listener up short with bold and uncompromising gestures; but for every startlingly obstinate moment in Tye’s surviving output, there are many more instances of breathtaking beauty. Tye was evidently his own man, and his musical boundaries were clearly defined and plainly drawn. Perhaps this is why another obdurate figure of the period (Henry VIII) is reported to have described Tye in glowing terms: ‘England one god, one truth, one doctor hath for music’s art—and that is Dr Tye.’
This recording brings together a selection of Tye’s sacred music for four, six, and seven voices. Two Masses and two non-liturgical Prayer-Motets in Latin are heard alongside an Offertory Sentence, an Easter Introit, and an Evensong Canticle in English. All of the music is recognizably by the same composer, although the function and effect of each piece is markedly different. An audibly unique feature of Tye’s harmony is the ‘interrupted subdominant cadence’, and it occurs on this recording no fewer than ten times (the interrupted subdominant cadence is not to be confused with the more common ‘English cadence’ which occurs in the music of many Tudor and Jacobean composers and even flowed from the pens of certain Continental composers of the day). The interrupted subdominant cadence is approached via the dominant chord (V) but, rather than resolving conventionally to the tonic (I), falls unexpectedly to the subdominant (IV). The result is that no single cadence in Tye’s Latin music (with the exception of a piece’s final cadence) can be predicted with certainty. This is ‘peevish and humoursome’ music, to be sure, but music that is as compellingly artful as that written by any Renaissance composer, or indeed by any English composer from any period.

Quaesumus omnipotens et misericors Deus is ostensibly for six voices, although there is no point at which six voices are deployed simultaneously. Moreover, the fifth voice down (baritone in modern parlance) is missing from the only source (a set of partbooks copied around the time of Tye’s death) and therefore requires reconstruction (here by Nigel Davison in 1987). It is a paraliturgical motet whose text was adapted from a prayer for Henry VII (the revised prayer is tendered on behalf of ‘thy family’ rather than specifically for the King). From the outset, the alternation of high and low voices with their muscularly close internal imitation announces that this is music by Christopher Tye; indeed the motet provides a measurable amount of musical material for the Missa Euge bone. English cadences at the words ‘in terris’ and ‘gratiosi’, along with Tye’s trademark interrupted subdominant cadence at the word ‘devitata’, lend fervour and directness to this Latin work which was, unusually, written during King Edward VI’s reign (1547–1553). Tye gave music lessons to Edward VI (Henry VII’s grandson), and the fact that the text had originally been designed as an intercession for the young King’s grandfather goes some way towards explaining the composition and tolerance of Tye’s Latin motet in rampantly Protestant times.

The Missa Euge bone is Tye’s masterpiece, and for that reason it has been suggested that this six-voice work was Tye’s doctoral submission to Cambridge University in 1545. However, it is just as likely that the Mass dates from Queen Mary’s reign (1553–1558) and that it was composed shortly after the motet Quaesumus omnipotens et misericors Deus, on which the Mass is partly based. The alternation of high and low voices throughout the Mass derives from the opening textures of the motet, and the first interrupted subdominant cadence occurs within a minute of the start of the Gloria in the three lower voices. The English cadence at ‘Agnus Dei’ introduces a jubilant section of stretto imitation at the words ‘Filius Patris’, where fifteen beats contain fourteen stretto entry points. The second, more reflective, section of the Gloria again plays on the antiphonal effect between upper and lower voices, and the interrupted subdominant cadence at ‘altissimus’ introduces magical block-chord homophony at the words ‘Jesu Christe’. The short final section of the Gloria culminates in a major-mode English cadence which leaves the listener dazzled—the entire text of the Gloria has been set expansively and colourfully in under six minutes. This is lean complexity at its best. The Credo is even shorter, although two-fifths of the full Credo text is omitted in order to achieve this. The Credo, like the Gloria, is also in three sections, and much of the material of the Gloria is re-used, although the interrupted subdominant cadence which appears just over a minute after the start of the movement now appears in the transparent upper voices (as it had done in the motet) to blissful effect, and this is followed by a section of sublime polyphony in which Tye’s sustained voice-leading creates a beguiling sense of dynamic stasis. An English cadence towards the end of the first section of the Credo leads into the movement’s central section, which is at first reflective but changes mood as the resurrection is announced. The short final section of the Credo culminates in the same stretto passage that was heard at the end of the Gloria’s opening section. The Sanctus begins with block-chord harmony—six arresting chords to carry the six syllables of the three statements of the opening word. At the word ‘Sabaoth’, the first section ends with another masterly cadence, this time where the dominant harmony seems to prepare for a resolution, but which stays resolutely where it is. The next two sections are for high and low voices respectively. But this time the upper voices appear in four parts rather than three (the treble part divides into two) and create a celestial texture which is answered by the resonantly handled lower four voices in the following section. The Osanna begins with three block chords, and the Sanctus ends with an interrupted subdominant cadence, which heralds the arrival of the Benedictus. The slow and measured procession of the entries of the Benedictus theme is inexorably satisfying, and once the last voice to enter (the lowest) has stated the theme, the section stops, at which point the boisterous Osanna surprises because it does not begin with block chords. The Agnus Dei is—uniquely for the period—set four times. The first Agnus Dei alternates high and low voices and then brings all six voices together for an extended span of stretto imitation: nineteen entries over thirty beats. The second Agnus Dei, scored for the four lower voices, passes through colourful submediant harmony to end with Tye’s most effective interrupted subdominant cadence of all. The third Agnus Dei creates an engaging five-voice texture by splitting both of the top voice parts into two, and underpins them with a fluid baritone line which ends with a melodic ostinato that states itself almost four complete times before seamlessly veering off to create the closing cadence. That the upper lines present themselves as a strict four-voice canon is astonishing given the delicate aural beauty of this section. The final Agnus Dei begins with commanding homophony which leads to a closing section where one final interrupted subdominant cadence ushers in the closing bars of this phenomenal work. The title of the Mass—‘Well done, good [servant]’—seems to relate to the Parable of the Talents in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, yet there is no convincing explanation for it. It will do, however, as an accolade to Tye’s accomplishment as composer of this iconic piece.

Give almes of thy goods is a pithy setting of an Offertory Sentence, which appeared in both the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer. This is an Edwardine creation in every way. Constructed in the ABB form of the early English anthem, this four-voice piece lasts for under two minutes and is entirely syllabic.

Christ rising is a six-voice setting of the Easter Anthems. The text belongs to the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, where it was ritually substituted for the Venite during Matins on Easter Day. The lowest partbook of the only (early seventeenth-century) source of this piece has been lost and requires reconstruction (here by John Langdon in 1970). The harmonic language is bold and frequently dissonant. The English cadence at the words ‘of the dead’ is one of the more gentle of the piece’s many dissonances. The augmented chord and subsequent simultaneous false relation used to paint the words ‘For seeing that by man came death’ might, on their own, be found expressive and tolerable, but the other fourteen instances of the simultaneous false relation (and three other non-simultaneous ones) make this piece acoustically disturbing (most notably so at the words ‘For as by Adam all men do die’). Each occurrence of the false relation is justifiable in terms of micro word-painting, and the brilliantly conceived contrasting consonant ending does justice to the words ‘restored to life’, but the overall effect is brash in the extreme. Perhaps it was this aspect of Tye’s stylistic dogma that so agitated Elizabeth I: ‘Sometimes playing on the organ in the chapel of Queen Elizabeth, which contained much music, but little delight to the ear, she would send the verger to tell him he played out of tune; whereupon he sent word that her ears were out of tune.’

Peccavimus cum patribus nostris is a Prayer-Motet which also bears classification as a Votive Antiphon, specifically a Jesus Antiphon by virtue of the words at the end of the first section. The cadence at the mention of the name of Jesus is heartfelt. The ear is prepared for a plagal cadence (IV–I), but instead the musical canvas is, without warning, illuminated with the colours of the supertonic (II). That the piece is scored for seven voices suggests that it dates from the reign of Queen Mary, and it certainly bears comparison with the other large-scale antiphons written during Mary’s reign by the likes of Tallis, Sheppard, and Mundy. Indeed Peccavimus cum patribus nostris surpasses even the work of Tye’s contemporaries because of its organic growth and purposeful progression. The two extended sections for four voices, and another for three voices, do more than offer textural contrast: they manipulate the listener (and indeed performer) into adopting Tye’s resolute mindset which dictates that the composition exists solely to prepare—on a vast scale—for the arrival of its climax, where all good things (‘holy love, hatred of sin, and a burning desire for the heavenly kingdom’) ‘grow more and more’. In literal terms this piece is a romantic symphony: romantic because its narrative qualities are manifest, and symphonic because polyphonic lines have rarely sounded together so effectively.

Tye’s Western Wynde Mass is one of three surviving English Masses based on the same monophonic song (the other two are by John Taverner and John Sheppard). The song’s avowedly secular text (‘Western wind, when wilt thou blow? The small rain down can rain, Christ, if my love were in my arms, and I in my bed again!’) is exactly the kind of Mass model that The Council of Trent found inappropriate at its debates concerning sacred music in the early 1560s. It is not certain which of the three Western Wynde Masses appeared first, although it would not have been Sheppard’s. Tye’s setting clearly complements Taverner’s, and it is generally assumed that Taverner’s Mass was the original. Where Taverner’s cantus firmus migrates between three of the four voice parts, Tye presents the melody exclusively in the alto part—the very one that Taverner chose not to use. And Taverner’s fivefold ascending melodic ostinato in the bass part of the opening of the Sanctus is matched by a sixfold descending melodic ostinato in the bass part of Tye’s Sanctus (both encompassing exactly the same range of a tenth). Both settings were written in the second half of King Henry VIII’s reign, and Tye’s setting contains some decidedly antique devices, which makes it possible (though far from probable) that Tye’s setting was chronologically the earlier. Among these devices is the late-medieval cadential formula at the end of the Osanna to the Sanctus, where the bass part leaps up an octave to arrive above the tenor, the first-inversion phrase ending at ‘miserere nobis’ in the Gloria, and the busily syncopated writing at the ‘qui venit’ section of the Benedictus which is reminiscent of the style of the late-fifteenth-century Eton Choirbook. But Tye’s interrupted subdominant cadence makes three appearances (to indicate the end of the bass ostinato in the Sanctus, at ‘gloria tua’ in the Sanctus, and halfway through the third and final Agnus Dei)—an indication that Tye had, by this stage, formulated his own modus operandi. The English cadence also makes two appearances (at ‘unigenitum’ in the Credo, and at ‘peccata mundi’ in Agnus Dei II), and a unique submediant cadence (in later classical harmony the archetypal form of interrupted cadence) colours the end of the Benedictus before the start of its Osanna. The Western Wynde Mass is probably the earliest music included on this recording, but it nevertheless bears all the hallmarks of the mature Tye.

The English text of the Nunc dimittis is non-standard: it has features in common with versions from 1535 and 1539, and the musical setting predates the award of Tye’s doctorate in 1545. This canticle would seem to date from Tye’s Cambridge years, when the composer first fell under the influence of the Protestant reformer Richard Cox (later Archdeacon of Ely Cathedral and responsible for Tye’s appointment as Master of the Choristers there). The pervasive, almost self-conscious, use of imitation shows the influence of the modern Continental style, but the harmonic idiom and the manner of text-setting are quintessentially English.


Quaesumus omnipotens
Mass, 'Euge Bone'
Give alms of thy goods
Christ rising again
Peccavimus cum patribus
Mass, 'Western Wind'
Nunc dimittis



III. TAVERNER: Western Wynde Mass, Missa Mater Christi sanctissima (Hyperion CD CDA68147).

Taverner: Missa Mater Christi sanctissima & Western Wynde Mass

0Early Tudor England was insular and the attitude of its people xenophobic. An Italian visitor of 1497 wrote that ‘the English are great lovers of themselves, and of everything belonging to them’, and moreover that ‘they have an antipathy to foreigners, and imagine that they never come into their island but to make themselves masters of it and to usurp their goods’. The composer John Taverner was not representative of this English stereotype, since he had great respect for foreign musicians and Continental methods of composition. Specifically, Taverner’s motet and Mass Mater Christi sanctissima showcase the imitative counterpoint and textural contrasts beloved of Josquin Des Prez, and the Western Wynde Mass shows a Lutheran dexterity in its use of a secular model for a piece of sacred music.
In early Tudor England the Church was an international organization ruled by the Pope. Rome received substantial sums of money from all of its dependents in recognition of the fact that the Pope had supreme jurisdiction over the state. England was a devout and orthodox nation; no expense was spared in the internal decoration of even the most humble of religious establishments. The Italian visitor of 1497 wrote that there was ‘not a parish church in the kingdom so mean as not to possess crucifixes, candlesticks, censers, patens, and cups of silver’. The ecclesiastical establishment encouraged a regime of superstitious religion in which the overriding concern of the laity was for the fate of their souls in the afterlife. Such concern was perpetuated by the sale of indulgences, by pilgrimage, and by the widespread veneration of relics. It was against this orthodoxy that John Taverner later rebelled, and it led the composer to ‘repent him very much that he had made songs to popish ditties in the time of his blindness’.

In October 1526, Oxford’s newest college—Cardinal College—opened for business. This was the ostentatious foundation of Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England, trusted advisor to King Henry VIII, and the most powerful man in England apart from the king himself. Wolsey approached his fiftieth birthday with a mission to dissolve those monasteries whose decadent administration fostered corruption. Wolsey had been at school and university in Oxford and later became Dean of Divinity at his alma mater, Magdalen College School. It was therefore natural for Wolsey to use some of the money that had accrued from the dissolution of thirty monasteries to found an educational establishment in Oxford. The eponymous Cardinal College (later Christ Church) was a spectacular foundation, not least musically. The choir of sixteen choristers and at least a dozen singing men was a large and thoroughly professional outfit. It required a superlative musician to run this impressive ensemble, and John Taverner was just such a person. When the Bishop of Oxford, John Longland, invited Taverner to take up the post of Director of Music at Cardinal College, Longland did so in the knowledge that Taverner was the greatest living English composer apart from Nicholas Ludford, and moreover one whose respect for his rich English musical heritage was augmented by a knowledge of (and respect for) the work of foreign composers.

The motet Mater Christi sanctissima was written while Taverner was working at Cardinal College. There was much call for Marian music in Wolsey’s foundation, especially when the text’s very opening emphasized Mary’s role as the mother of Christ. And Taverner’s Continental musical influences lent authentic Roman Catholic exoticism to Wolsey’s new establishment. From the outset, the alternation of the two upper voices and the three lower voices references a Continental soundworld, and carefully sets out its modern vocal space within Wolsey’s new architectural space. The effect is simple and direct, yet sophisticated. This Antiphon to the Virgin Mary has an appropriately feminine lilt, and its harmonies are carefully directed. While its five-voice texture is entirely English (with its high-lying arched treble lines and resonant bass), the antiphonal dialogue punctuated by passages of powerful homophony boasts Franco-Flemish influence. Yet the persistent harmonic cross-relations are integral to the piece’s English modality and more frequent than they would be in Continental church music of the time. The motet Mater Christi sanctissima survives in the ‘Peterhouse’ partbooks—a sacred anthology that reflects the repertory of the 1530s at Magdalen College. So this motet travelled east down Oxford’s High Street soon after its composition. Sadly, this set of partbooks is missing its tenor book (the second part up from the bass), although Mater Christi sanctissima is also contained in the ‘Sadler’ partbooks, which date from half a century later. So the piece survives intact, albeit not entirely contemporaneously. The same cannot be said for the Mass setting that Taverner based on the motet, since Missa Mater Christi sanctissima only survives in the ‘Peterhouse’ source. Francis Steele’s thrillingly competent reconstruction of the missing voice part of the Mass has been used for this recording, and the reliability of Steele’s edition is aided and abetted by the fact that the first part up from the bottom of the texture is the easiest part of the five to reconstruct, since its spacing above the bass line is acoustically straitjacketed when the other four parts are known. Moreover, since the Mass is modelled on the music of the motet, there are many sections where the music of the motet’s tenor part can be transferred directly from the model to the parody. What you hear on this recording is therefore as close to the original score as you could hope to get, at least until new sources are uncovered or new computational analytical techniques are developed.

Missa Mater Christi sanctissima—like most English cyclic Mass settings of the period—lacks a polyphonic Kyrie. The athletic opening of the Gloria brazenly references the Mass’s model, but bends the liltingly Marian figuration to its own ends. It is fascinating to observe how, in Taverner’s hands, a musical passage can transmit different meanings in different contexts. That isn’t the case with all composers of the period, and it takes a master craftsman like Taverner to reuse and re-stitch old material into a flattering new outfit. It is the fluency with which Taverner transforms his own music in a logically through-composed manner that is so impressive. And then, just as impressively, Taverner responds to the moment (for instance, ‘Jesu Christe’) by setting specific words in an arresting way: demonstrate special reverence here, the music says to the worshipper. Although the musical style of the Mass is predominantly expansive, the text is clearly audible in the decorated sections for a few well-considered reasons. First, the close imitation at the beginning of phrases helps to reinforce textual audibility. Secondly, melismas are reserved for the penultimate syllable of a phrase, by which time the final syllable’s identity is understood. Thirdly, the text of the Latin Mass would anyway have been thoroughly familiar to anyone hearing this music in Cardinal College in the late 1520s. On its second appearance in the Gloria, the name of Jesus is again given special chordal treatment, whereas this time the epithet ‘Christ’ is treated more expansively than before. And the ‘Amen’ at the end of the movement, though relatively brief, is one of the most ecstatic climaxes of any Mass movement of the early Tudor period. The use of the head-motif at the opening of the Credo engenders not so much the idea of motivic recycling, but rather it focuses the musical endeavour on the liturgical importance of the words of the Creed. It is Taverner’s strength that he simultaneously gives the impression of effortlessly spinning notes while taking care to lend emphasis to those aspects of the text that he deems appropriate—chordal treatment here, gentle imitation there; high voices here, a breathtaking musical arch there; insistent imitation here, low voices there; and so on. The view through Taverner’s musico-theological kaleidoscope is infinitely patterned and colourful. Missa Mater Christi sanctissima is thoroughly logical in the progression of its musical argument, and it means that the piece makes aural sense as a large-scale structure even when taken out of its liturgical context. Indeed, certain aspects of the composer’s genius become even more apparent when you divorce them from the liturgical action. And on a purely technical level, Taverner’s two- and three-voice writing is outstanding in this Mass. Indeed, there is more contrapuntal fluidity here than in Taverner’s more famous Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. The metre is firmly simple-duple throughout but with two exceptions—the compound-duple ‘Osanna’ to the Benedictus and the third ‘Agnus Dei’ that ends the Mass. That the self-evident ebullience transmitted by the words ‘Hosanna in the highest’ should be musically matched by the closing words of the Mass (‘grant us peace’) might seem contradictory to twenty-first-century sensibilities, yet clearly the early sixteenth-century Northern European view of peace was more vivacious than that of today.

In 1528, two years after his arrival in Oxford, Taverner was deemed to be over-sympathetic towards Lutheran doctrine. Fortunately for Taverner, then as now, the Director of Music at an Oxford college is viewed as a person whose political opinions are of little concern to the powers that be. And so, because Taverner was ‘but a musician’, he escaped sentence. But Lutheran sympathies had a tangible influence on the composition of Taverner’s Western Wynde Mass. Unlike the parody Mass Missa Mater Christi sanctissima, the Western Wynde Mass is based not upon polyphony but on a single-line melody. Moreover, where the model for the Missa Mater Christi sanctissima is devoutly religious, the tune on which the Western Wynde Mass is based has a text which is overtly secular:

Western wind, when will thou blow:
The small rain down can rain;
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
It is easy to see how Roman Catholic dignity might have been offended by Taverner’s liturgical reliance on a tune whose well-known text was so indecorous. On the other hand, the famous Lutheran cry of ‘Why should the devil have all the best tunes?’ (although Luther himself never wrote those words) was never so apt as in the composition of the Western Wynde Mass. The song itself is rhythmically sprightly, its melody catchy, and its Dorian melody (with its bold minor third and taut minor seventh) compositionally fecund. That John Sheppard and Christopher Tye—two giants of the mid-Tudor period—should each follow Taverner’s lead in using ‘Western wind’ as a model for a four-voice polyphonic Mass setting says almost as much about the structural agility of the tune itself as about Taverner’s immense reputation as a composer. Taverner deploys the ‘Western wind’ tune twenty-one times in the treble voice, ten times in the tenor, five times in the bass, and never in the alto (Tye’s setting, by contrast, uses the tune exclusively in the alto voice—a clear homage to Taverner). The wonder of Taverner’s setting (as indeed of Sheppard’s and Tye’s later settings) is that the many repetitions of the tune are embedded so deeply within inspired polyphonic composition that the repetitive nature provides musical coherence rather than boredom or irritation. Indeed, the most inspired moment in the Mass occurs at the beginning of the Sanctus, where Taverner uses the same rising-scale motif five times over in the bass part while the ‘Western wind’ tune unfolds overhead. That this occurs at the heart of the Mass underlines just how confidently virtuosic a composer Taverner was. The more technical constraints Taverner placed on himself, the more effective his music became. In that sense Taverner mirrors the aesthetic achievement of composers such as Bach, Haydn and Stravinsky, and frequently proves himself to be much more than a clever writer of church music on demand.


Motet, Mater Christi sanctissima (c.1526) [6:02]
Missa Mater Christi sanctissima (c.1526) [26:58]
Western Wynde Mass (1528) [25:36]


Composer Info

Christopher Tye, William Mundy, Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard, William Byrd, Robert White, John Taverner

CD Info

CD CDA67704, CD CDA 67928, CD CDA68147