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Music for Renaisssance Pageantry


Sponsored by the Boston Early Music Festival, the concert by the Tallis Scholars last night at St. Paul Church in Cambridge took as its theme the famous meeting held in June 1520 between England’s Henry VIII and the French king Francis I. The meeting place near Calais) was later known as the “Field of the Cloth of Gold” for the splendor of the accommodations, entertainments, and costumes displayed by each delegation. Music was always an important part of Renaissance state pageantry, requiring a substantial contingent of performers for both liturgical celebrations and secular entertainments. Jean Mouton (ca. 1459-1522), who served at the French royal court for most of his life, and William Cornysh the Younger (ca. 1465-1523), Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, are both thought to have been present at the meeting with their musicians. Celebrated in its own time, the music of Cornysh and Mouton is all too seldom heard today; we can be grateful to the Tallis Scholars for bringing us a representative selection of their works in exemplary performances.

The program opened with a technically spectacular yet mellifluous work: Mouton’s motet Nesciens mater virgo virum (A mother unknowing of man). The short text is a plainchant antiphon for Christmas week. The entire chant melody, given a new rhythmic shape and slightly ornamented, is heard in the second (lower) tenor. This voice is doubled canonically when two measures later the first tenor follows it in exact imitation at the fifth above. Meanwhile a second canon is established in similar fashion between the two bass parts, while two more canons proceed in the upper parts (second alto/second soprano and first alto/first soprano). Thus the entire eight-voice complex is realized from only four written parts. Despite the virtuosity of this contrapuntal feat, the piece never sounded contrived, its sonorous harmonies and flowing melodic lines rendered with equal vocal virtuosity by the 10 Tallis singers. Salva nos, Domine, in six parts, also contains a canon (between alto and tenor) based on a plainchant melody. Mouton’s Ave Maria, gratia plena for five voices with no borrowed melody, was notable for the use of smooth imitative entries delineating each line of the text, occasional homophonic outbursts providing contrast and textual emphasis, while the forthright declamation of Quaeramus cum pastoribus (Let us seek with the shepherds), with its “Noe” (Nowell) refrain, reflected the popular flavor of a Christmas carol.

It was not unusual for Renaissance composers to select a secular song rather than a sacred chant as the basis for a polyphonic Mass composition. In choosing the tenor of a rondeau Dictes moy toutes vos pensées (Tell me all your thoughts), by Loyset Compère (ca. 1445-1518) as a source of motivic material for a four-voice Mass, Mouton may have intended a playful homage to an older colleague who also served at the French court. We heard the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei, whose smoothly flowing melismas came to the fore in a number of skillfully performed duets, particularly that between tenor and bass in the second section of the Agnus Dei.

William Cornysh the Younger, a gentleman of the Chapel Royal under Henry VII and Henry VIII and later Master of the Children, was also engaged in court entertainments as a writer and actor. He supervised the Chapel Royal’s ceremonies at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, his second visit to France in the retinue of Henry VIII. His four-voice Ave Maria, mater Dei makes little use of the pervading imitation then current on the continent and employed so skillfully by Mouton. Its charm lay rather in the florid lines assigned to a variety of duos and trios that provided textural contrast. The five-voice Salve regina, mater misericordiae by John Browne, a contemporary of Cornysh, in a similarly florid style, was notable for the sweeping beauty of its final “Salve.” Cornysh also composed a number of English partsongs, a genre that flourished at Henry VIII’s court. In Ah Robyn, performed by just four singers, two friends compare the fidelity of their ladies. The refrain is a very simple three-part canon repeated after each solo verse. Woefully arrayed, a sacred song in the voice of the suffering Jesus, has a longer refrain heard at the beginning and the end, but shortened in between stanzas. Although beautifully rendered by eight singers, the effect might have been more immediate with one singer to a part. All 10 singers took part in the extraordinary five-voice Magnificat by Cornysh that concluded the program. The text is set in the customary alternatim style, with the odd-numbered verses sung on the Gregorian chant tone and even-numbered verses set in polyphony. The exuberant polyphony of the ensemble verses features a wide range of vocal scoring combinations, setting an upper-voice trio against a lower-voice trio in one verse, for example, and two solo tenors against the full ensemble in another, and a lovely duet for soprano and alto in the final doxology. The Scholars obliged us with two verses from a Magnificat by Nicolas Gombert (ca. 1495-ca. 1560), his dense polyphony with its overlapping imitative entries contrasting notably with Cornysh’s wayward melismas.

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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  1. And yet this concert was not up to the standard the Tallis Scholars have set for themselves. Too often the soprano line was allowed to dominate. And there were several points at which the basses seemed unsteady/uncertain in ending quiet phrases, producing a distracting smudge. Or maybe they just failed to meet the standard set by Blue Heron out at Boston College on Thursday night.

    Comment by Jeremy — April 2, 2012 at 11:47 am

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