Thursday, July 16, 2009

If Ye Love Me by Thomas Tallis

Performed by the Cambridge Singers conducted by John Rutter. To be performed by the Washington Collegium this Sunday, the 19th of July, under the direction of Benjamin Hansen at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington DC.

The name Thomas Tallis has undergone a bit of a revival as it has been suggested by the Showtime (travesty) series, The Tudors, that Thomas Tallis was a prominent gay character in the infamously ribald intrigues of the court of Henry VIII.

But this representation of Tallis has no basis in historical fact. Tallis was a happily married man, and so free of any sort of intrigue that he stayed a beloved court presence through all the English wars of succession in spite of his being (like William Byrd) an unreformed Catholic. So beloved were they by the court that in 1575 the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I granted them an exclusive monopoly on the printing and publishing of all polyphonic music.

(Vigilate by Willaim Byrd, performed by the Tallis Scholars conducted by Peter Phillips)

Tallis was 35 years Byrd's senior, and thus beholden to the compositional styles of a different generation. Whereas Byrd's choral music makes its impact through the constant and ingenious use of 'melismas' (a long series of notes on one syllable), Tallis achieves his impact through less florid means. Tallis composes in far more block-like structures - sparingly employing more than one note to a syllable - with counterpoint that is far less ostentatious in displaying its skill.

This should not be taken to mean that Tallis's music is in any way inferior to Byrd's in either its skill or its complexity. Tallis's music achieves its impact cumulatively, as in the famous 40-part motet Spem in Alium, inviting the audience to experience the complexity in unfolding waves of ever increasing complexity until the final peroration. The music seems to develop so organically that the audience is barely conscious that this music is any more complex than a Schubert Song.

(Tallis's 40-part motet: Spem in Alium. Performed by the Tallis Scholars and to be performed by the Washington Collegium in the 2011-2012 season)

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