TAVERNER & TUDOR MUSIC
John Taverner's Mass Gloria tibi Trinitas has long been acknowledged as occupying a position of particular importance in the history of English music, not only because it is one of the composer's finest works but also because another significant musical form was generated from it: the instrumental In nomine, cultivated by many English composers over the next 150 years. Together with Taverner's Mass Corona spinea, Gloria tibi Trinitas may be regarded as marking the high point of the pre-Reformation English festal Mass tradition, in which the elaborate ceremonial of the Sarum rite was accompanied on liturgical feast days by music of particular splendour.
On this recording, the movements of the Mass are presented alongside the plainchant Propers for Trinity Sunday, and interspersed with pieces by composers representing the generations immediately before and after Taverner, revealing his music - from our perspective of hindsight - as standing at a pivotal point, building on the intellectual rigour and rhythmic energy of Fayrfax's writing and also looking forward to the more harmonic and expressive style of the 1560s and 70s.
Parts of Taverner's life are relatively well documented, yet more than most other composers of his time, he has been the subject of some myths and misunderstandings, largely attributable to credence given to a single sentence written by the ardent Protestant John Foxe (about 20 years after Taverner's death), that the composer came to ‘repent him very much that he had made songs to popish ditties in the time of his blindness'. In fact, the evidence suggests simply that Taverner enjoyed a successful career both as church musician and as a well-respected member of the community, despite living through the difficult times of the Henrican Reformation.
His name is first recorded as a lay clerk in the important choir at Tattershall, Lincolnshire, in 1525; in the following year he was recommended by the Bishop of Lincoln for the prestigious new post of Informator (choirmaster) at Cardinal College (now Christ Church), Oxford, founded by Cardinal Wolsey and lavishly endowed with a choir of 16 choristers and 12 ‘clerkes skilled in polyphony'. The college's glory proved to be short-lived, however, as Wolsey fell from royal favour and the provision for choral services was greatly reduced. Just four years later, in 1530, Taverner returned to Lincolnshire, where he is thought to have directed another musical foundation, the choir of the Guild of St Mary in Boston, for a few years, and continued to conduct his business as a prosperous and worthy citizen.
The Mass Gloria tibi Trinitas took pride of place as the item chosen to head the Forrest-Heather partbooks, which were compiled for use at Cardinal College during Taverner's brief tenure of office. Its title is derived from the plainchant ‘Gloria tibi Trinitas', a Vespers antiphon for Trinity Sunday and doubly appropriate in view of the College's dedication to the Trinity. The chant acts as cantus firmus, presented in the second voice (rather than the tenor, as was more usual), and used three times in the Gloria, Credo and Sanctus and twice in the Agnus Dei. As in so much music of this period, fascinating mathematical proportions underlie the structure, yet Taverner was able to make these, as well as the technical challenges of combining a cantus firmus with imitative voice-leading, sound entirely natural. The four movements (the Kyrie was not set as part of the Ordinary by English composers at this time) are linked by a common head-motif; within each of them, variety of texture is provided by the contrast between passages for full choir (six voices spanning three octaves and one note) and those more delicately scored for two, three or four parts, often more imitative in conception. Sequential development of melodic motifs gives a logic and propulsion to the music, which is full of rhythmic vigour.
The particular grace that characterises the section of the Benedictus at the words ‘in nomine Domini' was evidently recognised by contemporary musicians, several of whom included it in their anthologies of favourite excerpts; others soon followed its example, taking up the challenge to compose their own works around this same section of chant.
Born some 5 years before Taverner, Robert Fayrfax was appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (the monarch's own musical establishment), and as such took part in several important royal occasions including the funeral of Henry VII, the coronation of Henry VIII (1509), and the meeting in France known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520). His Magnificat Regale or Regali is preserved in the Eton Choirbook, compiled before 1505, and has a musical connection with his later Mass Regali, based on the chant ‘Regali ex progenie'; it is likely that one or both works were written for the royal foundations of either Eton or King's College, Cambridge. Scored for five voices spanning three octaves, the Magnificat follows the pattern traditional at this time, alternating chanted verses with polyphonic ones which are loosely connected with the chant through its faburden.
Robert White, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis are each represented here by hymns forming part of the ritual at the evening service of Compline. Dating from between 1553 (the accession of Mary Tudor) and the early 1570s (White died in 4, and Tallis's Te lucis ante terminum was published in the 1575 Cantiones sacrae), these works show the development of cantus firmus treatment in the hands of the next generation of composers. Like Taverner in his in nomine, White built his polyphony (in Christe qui lux es et dies Nos. II - IV) around a chant part moving in regular note values twice the length of the surrounding notes, so that it acts both as a structural framework and as an anchor to the harmonic suspensions and resolutions that propel the music along; Byrd and Tallis (Te lucis ante terminum) incorporated the chant in the same note values as the other voices.
In his Christe qui lux es et dies, Byrd set himself a particular technical challenge, resolved with apparent ease: after the opening plainchant verse, the chant is present throughout the five-part writing, moving upwards through the voices verse by verse, ending in the top voice.
The words of this evening prayer for peaceful rest must have held special appeal for White, who made four alternatim settings of it, the first, like Byrd's, in block chords, and the other three built from a mosaic of brief imitative motifs that weave round the chant. No. IV is surely an exceptional composition with its beautifully judged vocal scoring, sense of spaciousness contained within a miniature framework, and most of all, a final polyphonic verse that opens out from absolute simplicity into flowing quaver patterns.
Sally Dunkley, 2008
This CD is the second recording from Ars Nova Records featuring a Mass by John Taverner and a selection of works by composers from the same era - the first CD featured his Western Wind Mass. The main work here is Taverner's Gloria tibi TrinitasMass, one of the masterworks of Tudor church music, together with appropriate plainchants, hymn settings by Robert White, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, and Robert Fayrfax's brilliant Magnificat Regale performed by Ars Nova Copenhagen conducted by Paul Hillier.