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Sheer Beauty, Clarity from Stile Antico


“Puer natus est” was the title of the British ensemble Stile Antico’s concert of Tudor Music for Christmas and Advent, heard Saturday evening, December 17th, in St. Paul Church, Cambridge, as part of the Boston Early Musical Festival’s 2011-2012 season. The choir of beautifully blended voices consisted of six women and seven men, singing without a conductor and able to divide as needed into as many as seven parts.

Outside the “Euro zone” although connected by many links to the continent, English music of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance developed many idiosyncratic, and endearing, style traits. Fullness of sound and a fondness for “sweet” harmonies based on thirds and sixths as well as quirky false harmonic relations persisted even as the long, floating melodic lines of early Tudor polyphony gradually gave way to text-defining points of imitation, a continental import. Those of us lucky enough to have heard Blue Heron’s stellar “Christmas in Medieval England” the night before (a program presented December 16th and 17th in the First Church, Cambridge and reviewed for BMI by Tamar Hestrin-Grader here) were treated first to a grand sweep through English sacred music from the thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth century, and then from the mid-sixteenth to the turn of the seventeenth century.

Life under the Tudor monarchs was complicated for composers of sacred music as they navigated the violent fluctuations in musical practice from Henry VIII’s break with Rome and suppression of the monasteries to the stripping of the altars under Edward VI, Catholic restoration under Mary Tudor, and finally the establishment of the Anglican Church under Elizabeth I. Although the Catholic composers Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585) and William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623) wrote music for Anglican as well as Catholic services, all the music we heard last night was composed for the Roman Catholic rite. The program opened, like Blue Heron’s, with the singing of the familiar hymn for Advent, Veni, veni Emmanuel. Alternate hymn stanzas were sung by men and women placed in opposite transepts of the church, the last two stanzas harmonized in simple note-against-note organum that lent additional solemnity to the haunting plainchant melody.

Thomas Tallis served in the royal households of all four Tudor monarchs, composing service music in both Latin and English. The text of his six-voice motet Videte miraculum, a responsory for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin on February 2nd, tells the story of the Virgin birth. Placed in the tenor as a cantus firmus in equal long notes, the plainchant melody is surrounded by five other voices in complex polyphony, whose linear thrust often results in uncompromising cross relations at cadences. Tallis’s incomplete seven-voice Missa Puer natus es is based on the Christmas Introit, which we heard in its original plainchant form later in the program. Here Tallis employed an elaborate cantus firmus technique that harks back to Medieval numerology: the value of each note of the borrowed chant melody is based on the number assigned to its vowel in the original text. Only the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei of the Mass survive. Tallis — and the Stile Antico singers — made the most of the implicit contrast between sections of the Gloria text, from the vigorous opening song of praise to the more reflective “Qui tollis peccata mundi” and the triumphant “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” with its closely-spaced imitations on the word “altissimus.” In the Sanctus, the climactic moment came in the recurrent “Osanna in excelsis” section, its static harmonies animated by complex contrapuntal interchange among the voices, a technique employed again in the “Dona nobis pacem” that concluded the Agnus Dei.

The movements of the Tallis Mass were interspersed with four settings of Propers (seasonal liturgical texts) by William Byrd for the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary during Advent. In his late years Byrd, a recusant, and his family joined a Catholic community in Essex. By 1605, when his first book of Gradualia (Propers for the major feasts of the church year) was published, he no longer tried to conceal either its authorship or its liturgical purpose. Intended for devotions in the private chapels of aristocratic recusants, these short four-voice motets are modest in scale yet full of text-inspired motives in skillfully handled imitative entries. Byrd’s contemporary Robert White (ca. 1538-1574) served as Master of the Choristers at Ely and Chester cathedrals and then at Westminster Abbey. His Magnificat for six voices is set alternatim, that is, with plainchant and choral verses in alternation. This expansive work is notable for its long-breathed melodic lines and ingenious variety of contrapuntal textures, such as the pairing of upper-voice quartet and bass on “Esurientes implevit bonis” and the duet for alto and bass that opens “Sicut erat in principio.”

As the second half of the program opened, four female voices rang out from the rear gallery with the evocative text of Audi vocem de caelo by John Taverner (ca. 1490-1545), most of whose music was composed before the Reformation. Whether in the closely-spaced polyphony of the respond with its soaring contrapuntal lines, or in the plainchant verse, the women sounded for all the world like (ideal) boy choristers, their voices perfectly tuned, ringingly clear, and without vibrato. Most of the Latin sacred music by John Sheppard (ca. 1515-1559 or 1560) was composed during the reign of Mary Tudor. His six-voice responsory for Christmas Matins, Verbum caro factum est, with its extravagantly wide range and florid ornamental lines, brought a fitting conclusion to this magnificent program. By way of contrast, and in honor of the four-hundredth anniversary of his death, Tomás Luis de Victoria’s four-voice Christmas motet was offered as an encore.

Stile Antico stands out for clarity of phrasing, precisely unified ensemble, and for sheer beauty of sound that is strong and clear but never sounds forced. Their program booklet featured complete texts and translations along with two pages of concise and informative notes by Matthew O’Donovan that were a model of how to write for informed but not necessarily specialist listeners — all presented in a clearly readable typeface. Members of the choir also stepped out occasionally to deliver further introductory remarks. Under the title Puer natus est, the program was issued on CD last year by Harmonia Mundi. But nothing can replace the pure pleasure of hearing this talented ensemble live in a beautiful space such as St. Paul Church.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.


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