TAVERNER & TUDOR MUSIC
Although he is one of England's greatest composers, relatively little is known about John Taverner's life. He was born in Lincolnshire around 1490, and by 1524 he was one of six lay clerks at Tattershall College in Lincolnshire. Prior to this it is quite probable that he worked in London, though the documentary evidence for this is extremely thin. However it is likely that he developed some association with court music circles and, at some point, gained the confidence of Cardinal Wolsey, one of the most powerful men under King Henry VIII. In 1526 he became the first choirmaster of Cardinal College, Oxford - founded by Cardinal Wolsey. After Wolsey's fall from grace in 1530, Taverner returned to his native county and lived prosperously in the town of Boston, which thanks to the wool trade was then one of the richest towns in England. Although -Taverner became associated with the choir of St. Botolph in Boston, a church maintained in ample style by local businessmen, we know very little of his musical activities from this point on. (It has been demonstrated that the once widespread idea that he became a fanatical anti-papist was mistaken.) Taverner died in 1545. Cardinal College was renamed Christ Church, and has maintained a strong choral tradition to this day.
Taverner's Western Wind Mass is one of three early Tudor masses that use a cantus firmus derived from the song "Westron Wynde". Taverner's setting is probably one of his earlier works (and would thus have been composed during the London sojourn - though this is indeed speculation). The other two masses are by John Sheppard and Christopher Tye, quite possibly composed in the 1540s in homage to the older master. The song survives as a melody in a manuscript songbook (now preserved in the British Library), though it differs somewhat from the one actually used as the cantus firmus. The words of the song (modernised here) are an interesting basis for a sacred composition:
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.
The use of a secular tune as cantus firmus in a sacred composition, though quite common on the continent, was extremely rare in England. In Taver-ner's setting the tune is heard thirty-six times throughout the work, nine times in each movement, and switches between different voices (though never in the alto). Each appearance is accompanied in the other voices by a series of polyphonic variations that may remind the listener of the developing Tudor keyboard style. In this mass Taverner demonstrates a superb sense of numerical proportion in his design, counterbalanced by a seemingly endless source of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic invention in the freely composed voices, each variation introducing some new colour or opening out a new perspective onto the melody itself.
English composers before the Reformation did not normally set the Kyrie, as this was usually troped with an additional text in honour of a particular Saint or Feast, and therefore usually sung to plainchant. Kyrie Le Roy (the king) is based on a ‘square', a Kyrie melody used at Lady Mass, and around which Taverner has woven some lovely polyphony. The origin of ‘square' is obscure and may simply refer to the appearance of the notation.
The Respond In pace is sung at Compline during Lent; Christopher Tye's beautiful setting retains the plainsong as cantus firmus throughout. Tye was born around 1500 and was a lay-clerk and possibly a boy chorister at King's College, Cambridge. In 1541 he was appointed Master of the Choristers at Ely Cathedral. He was ordained in 1560, and the following year resigned his position at Ely to become Rector of Doddington in Cambridgeshire. He died some twelve years later.
The other four works on this CD are from the Fayrfax Manuscript, compiled around 1500, quite possibly in the courtly music circles of London and Windsor. This collection contains a number of secular and spiritual partsongs - although the term ‘partsong' does little justice to their superb musical quality. The style of many of these works amounts to a sort of secular branch of the Eton Choirbook, and indeed some of the composers appear in both collections.
Sheryngham's Ah, gentle Jesu is one of only two surviving pieces by this otherwise unknown composer. William Cornysh (d. 1523) was an important composer, dramatist, and actor, who was active in court circles. He composed a number of sacred works (several of them are in the Eton Choirbook) and some lively partsongs that survive in this and a songbook associated with Henry VIII. The handful of extant compositions by John Browne (his dates are not known) indicate that he was clearly a composer of considerable stature. His Eton Choirbook works are relatively well known today, especially the magnificent Stabat Mater, but although the pieces in the Fayrfax collection are only credited to ‘Browne' their quality suggests that it is probably the same composer.
Each of these songs, which treat of Christ's passion and crucifixion, are cast in the form of a carol, which was one of the dominant genres in these and earlier English song collections. Here the word ‘carol' does not signify anything specifically to do with Christmas; indeed some of them are entirely secular, even bawdy in content. The carol, during this period of 1450-1550, has been defined by R. L. Greene as a song on any subject, composed of similar stanzas and provided with a refrain or chorus. In the surviving musical examples we can also detect a common element in the mingling of artful polyphony and vernacular tunefulness, mirrored by a similar combination in the texts. The carol had already become an important genre of English composition in the later 15th century, but it is in the Fayrfax Manuscript collection that it attained its highest expression.
The inscription on the cover of this CD is by David Jones (1895-1974 - London born, but of Welsh ancestry of which he was proud). Jones was a poet and painter in the modernist tradition, whose importance has long been recognised, and yet whose name remains practically unknown to the public at large. His painted inscriptions echo not only the Roman art of lettering, but also the Lindisfarne Gospels where their hand-wrought quality is most in evidence. The texts assembled in these inscriptions combine words and phrases drawn from Latin hymns and early English poetry. The result is a special kind of visual poem in which the irregularity of the lettering reinforces the meaning of the words, in a way that recalls the function of music in a song. Jones professed to know little about music, but when Stravinsky called on him one afternoon in 1963, they talked about plainchant and the compositions of Dufay such as Vergine bella and Alma redemptoris mater. I have always felt that there was a kinship between the world of Jones's inscriptions and the music of the 15th and early 16th centuries, especially the world of the carols.
© Paul Hillier, May 2006