in: Reviews

December 14, 2015

Tallis Tells of a Birth

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To celebrate the advent of Christmas, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars reached across four centuries, juxtaposing late-20th-century compositions by Arvo Pärt with music from mid-16th-century England. On Saturday evening at St. Paul’s Cambridge, the program opened with Pärt’s setting of the Seven Antiphons sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers on the seven days before Christmas. Traditionally called the “O” antiphons, each one hails the coming of Christ using one of his scriptural attributes: “O Wisdom,” “O Morning Star,” “O Emmanuel,” etc. Born and educated in Estonia, Pärt has composed choral settings in various languages, including English; his antiphons are set to a German version of the original Latin text. The four-voice settings are sparely syllabic, but with careful attention to structure and accentuation. There is almost no melismatic ornament or detailed word painting, and little rhythmic tension. Seemingly consonant harmonies are overlaid with clashing dissonant melodic lines or frankly opposed triads from another key entirely. Straight tone and precise intonation, in which the Tallis Scholars excel, enabled these thickened textures to ring out with penetrating clarity. The mystery of the burning bush was reflected in the second antiphon’s scoring for drone-like male voices, contrasting with scoring in the third antiphon for upper voices only. In the final “O Immanuel,” the sopranos at the top of their range were thrilling, though almost too shrill. The Magnificat canticle that followed—the Virgin’s response to the angel of the Annunciation—sets the humility of humankind against the power of the Almighty. Contrasting female and male voices in the opening verse, a climax of harmonic intensity was reached in the verse “Suscepit Israel” (He has sustained Israel) that carried through to the final doxology. Quite a different atmosphere emanated from Pärt’s setting of “I am the true vine” from the Gospel of John. Like so much music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it is based on numerical principles, but these were not readily apparent to the ear. Instead, one heard a continual cycling of notes between the voices, resulting in an effect more of static recitation than of motion, a meditation on the meaning of the words.

John Sheppard (ca. 1515-1558) served as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal in the 1550s, and most of his Latin liturgical music was probably associated with the Catholic restoration under Mary Tudor. “Sacris solemniis” sets a hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas for the feast of Corpus Christi: the coming of Christ in the form of the Eucharistic bread and wine. The unadorned chant melody is sung to the odd-numbered stanzas (there are seven), while each of the even-numbered stanzas is set in elaborate eight-voice polyphony based on the same chant tune. In these verses the tune, freely ornamented, is placed in the top part in longer notes, the upper voices either singing together or divided in a gymel duet. The effect was of a constant interweaving of voices, with occasional imitation serving more to enrich the florid texture than to clarify the structure. Short phrases in the bass provided punctuation to the dense flow of polyphony. Sheppard’s “Gaude gaude gaude Maria,” an elaborate six-voice setting of the responsory and inserted prosas for Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, was also composed for Mary Tudor’s Chapel Royal. Beginning with the tenor intonation of the first part of the chant melody, the choir responded in polyphony, the tenor continuing the chant in long notes. A reduced five-voice group took over in the inserted prosa sections: now the treble and mean (middle) parts were divided, with the chant now in the lower mean, supported by the bass; only the final -a vowel of each section was echoed in an otherworldly chant melisma before the return of the full six-voice group.

The evening’s centerpiece was the seven-voice Missa Puer natus est nobis by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). The Mass was probably written in 1554 for performance at Christmas while Mary Tudor’s husband, Philip of Spain, was resident in London. The cantus firmus, “a boy is born to us, and a son is given to us whose government shall be on his shoulders” was not only appropriate to the season but could also refer to Mary’s supposed pregnancy and the wish for a royal heir. Philip’s choir, which he brought along with him, had no treble singers; the scoring for seven voices at low pitch could reflect the fact that the Mass was intended for performance by the two royal choirs together. Tallis combined the old-fashioned technique of placing the chant in long notes in the tenor as a cantus firmus with the more up-to-date practice of imitation between the other voices, and even a strict canon between the top voices in the second Agnus Dei. Phillips showed a fine sense for the well-shaped melodic lines that add up to the richness of this sumptuously melismatic polyphony.

For the Tallis Scholars’ 40th concert with the Boston Early Music Festival, the church was packed with an enthusiastic crowd of the faithful. As an encore, we were rewarded with a magnificent “Deus in adiutorium meum intende” for eight-voice double choir by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, choirmaster at the cathedral of Puebla in the mid-17th-century, demonstrating to Donald Trump, Phillips said, that many fine things have indeed come from Mexico.

Tallis Scholars (file photo)

Tallis Scholars (file photo)

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

3 Comments

  1. Despite the unseasonable warmth in the church, the challenge of finding a parking space in Harvard Square on a busy Saturday night, and the less-than- ideal acoustics in the church, the evening was a splendid success.

    The performance was thrilling on every level – the music spanned four centuries and three (four including the encore) composers yet felt totally organic. The Tallis Scholars gave a tour de force performance that was spiritual, contemplative, and thrilling. Peter Phillips led the group unobtrusively yet his presence was comforting and confidence-inspiring.

    If polyphony is your thing, this was as good as it gets.

    Comment by Dan Meagher — December 14, 2015 at 10:19 am

  2. What a beautifully constructed concert! And so beautifully sung.One wonders if Medioeval attendees at masses where these were sung had it so good.

    I hope our readers value as much as we do the information that Mrs. Newes provides. Biographical info we can find on our own, but her explanations of music techniques are a treat to read.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — December 17, 2015 at 3:09 pm

  3. Now online:

    http://www.wgbh.org/programs/Classical-Concerts-1394?episode=64924

    Comment by David Moran — December 22, 2015 at 5:01 pm

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