Program Notes - Masters of the Renaissance: England

During the Renaissance, English composers created a huge body of absolutely magnificent choral music – a repertory that held its own against any European country of the period. And, in my opinion, this body of music represents the absolute summit of musical creation in England’s entire history. Furthermore, there is an almost limitless variety among these pieces: profound, soaring Latin motets and masses, brilliant virtuoso pieces, straight-to-the-point communicative settings of English texts, and so forth. I have chosen some of the greatest masterpieces of the two giants of the period, Tallis and Byrd, and a huge variety of works by many other composers.

Our program begins right off with some of the very greatest works of the period: Latin motets of Thomas Tallis. As musician at the Chapel Royal in London from 1543 until his death in 1585, Tallis provided music for four successive British monarchs. During his lifetime the church in England changed back and forth between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. Like Byrd, Tallis wrote magnificently for whichever church was in power at the time, while remaining himself a life-long Roman Catholic. (An interesting note: during this period, the term motet referred to a choral work composed in Latin, and the word anthem meant a choral work in English.)

The three motets beginning tonight’s program represent Tallis at his very best. Whereas some of the composers on tonight’s program came at the end of the Renaissance and their musical language often points forward towards the Baroque period, these motets of Tallis are deeply planted in the centuries-old traditions of modal polyphony. Tallis’s great gift was to draw us away from the present world and take us into an extraordinarily profound spiritual world. All three of these great motets immediately go to this other world from the first measure to the last.

O Sacrum convivium begins in a minor key, deep and mystical. This is a motet of the Holy Communion. From time to time, the piece subtly shift keys, and in the process emotions change. And there is an amazing mounting of vocal phrases, one on top of another – twice in the motet – creating moments of true inspiration.

Salvator mundi has a more personal text (“Saviour, help us, redeem us!”) but it still inhabits a spiritual realm. English Renaissance composers enjoyed a certain musical technique called cross-relationships (for example, a G-natural and a G-sharp sung at the same time.) Tallis employs that “crunching sound” frequently here to establish the poignant pleading of the text.

Some musicians (this conductor included) consider In ieiunio et fletu to be Tallis’s greatest masterpiece. For me, it presents an amazing journey into the spiritual world - so deep, so intense, the feelings so subtle and ever-changing. And his use of voices and harmony is unique. He treats the different voices almost as “tone generators,” the pure tones of which create an ever-changing tapestry of harmonies. And with each change of harmony comes a new intense emotional response. A major chord might indicate light and hope. He then moves one solitary note and the chord becomes minor and we feel sadness or longing. In some ways, the manner in which he places these “tones” to create chords - which elicit emotional responses - seems to me almost abstract and modern, even though the piece is totally grounded in the traditions of ancient polyphony. Perhaps that’s why this work seems so timeless to me. There is also genius in his choral orchestrations – the constantly changing combinations of various voice parts – sometimes lighter, higher parts, sometimes dark, rich, lower vocal combinations – each change done seamlessly. And these orchestration changes of course go hand in glove with the harmonic emotional journey. They help communicate the journey. – A very great masterpiece.

The Palm Sunday anthem Hosanna to the Son of David by Thomas Weelkes provides an excellent contrast. It is bold, vivid, and brilliant; its construction clear and concise, with lively imitative sections leading to block-like chordal moments.

Richard Nicholson was the first professor of music at Oxford University. His simple anthem O pray for the peace of Jerusalem is a lovely work, tender, sweet, and unpretentious.

Peter Philips was a composer and keyboard virtuoso. His works show the influence of the beginning of the Baroque period, including the use of major-minor tonal harmony (instead of church modes) and quick, lively moving figurations. His Surgens Jesus is a delightful story-telling motet, depicting the risen Christ standing amongst his disciples. When he quietly says to them “Pax vobiscum” (“Peace be with you”) the music comes to a stand-still. The disciples then realize who he is, and alleluias spring forth.

The last three anthems before intermission are all by Orlando Gibbons, each in a different style. The first, Almighty and everlasting God, is a perfectly-composed imitative piece. (Each phrase of text is set to a new melody which is sung by each voice part in turn; then a new text and melody sung by the various parts, and so on.) Notice the part “stretch forth thy right hand” where the music swells to convey the text. 

O Lord, increase my faith, sung in churches across the world, is flawless in its simple and clear setting of the text. The word “charity” seems to come out of nowhere; and the slight anxiety of “in all my adversities” gives way gently to the music of “sweet Jesus.”

O clap your hands is an absolute tour-de-force. Most composers of the period wrote works of brilliance and virtuosity with sections where all the parts were bobbing around independently with great panache. This piece may be the single longest “vocal volley” in the repertoire. And, for 22 pages of music, Gibbons keeps it going with constant variations of melody and texture. More than that, the work accumulates a sense a grandeur which sets it apart from other such works. The challenge for the performers is, of course, vocal and mental stamina!

After intermission we turn to the other universal colossus of English Renaissance composers, William Byrd. Byrd, like Tallis, was a member of the Chapel Royal, and probably a student of the older master. He composed a huge body of choral, instrumental, and keyboard music. His choral compositions include many motets, anthems, and three masses (for three voices, four voices, and five voices.)

Of all the masses composed in all the ages by British composers, the Four and Five Part Masses of Byrd stand alone, without peer. They are technically more perfect, more subtle, more nuanced than any other settings - and also more profound. They inhabit a spiritual world shared by only a few other compositions ever penned in Britain. (Some of those other ultimate masterpieces were also, incidentally, composed by Byrd.)

The Kyrie sets forth immediately the main theme of the mass, which is heard in almost all the movements. This Kyrie, although comprising only three short sections, is already deeply spiritual – in another world. Subtle changes of harmony distinguish the three sections: the first section a formal invocation to God the Father; the second, in a related major key, a personal prayer to Christ the Saviour; the third section has an almost continuous series of thematic entrances, one after the other, imploring the Lord for mercy.

The Gloria is a lengthy and amazingly developed work. It begins in an unexpectedly reserved manner (with just the top three voices), breaking forth only with the words “Laudamus te” (“We praise thee”). The rest of the first third of the Gloria continues with constantly-changing groupings of voices and new thematic material. Most Glorias are straight forward joyous creations. Not so, this lofty piece. Although there is definite joy here, there is also great profundity. The slower middle section contains some of the most ravishingly beautiful music imaginable – so simple and evoking such a deep spiritual world. The “Quoniam” announces the final section, the most rousing part of the movement.

The Sanctus is not built on the principal theme of the Mass, but begins instead with long, soaring vocal phrases which seem to gently send forth praises up to God, as if floating on the clouds of incense which would be billowing forth at this moment of the liturgy. In most Sanctus settings the music becomes particularly vigorous at the words “Pleni sunt coeli” (“Heaven and Earth of full of thy glory!”) But here, instead, the music becomes more intimate, with three voice parts inwardly expressing the divine glory of God. The “Hosanna” pronounces a bold conclusion to the Sanctus proper.

The second part of the Sanctus, the Benedictus, is a miracle of tender poetry. Utilizing only two or three voice parts, it creates an amazingly peaceful time of meditation before the return of the rousing “Hosanna”. 

It is in the concluding Agnus Dei that the Mass reaches its highest peak of spirituality, universality, and timelessness. Each phrase is exquisitely expressive on its own. But more significantly, it is what the music evokes that is so extraordinary here. The first section, utilizing only the top three voices, seems to inhabit a serene world far away. The beginning of the second section is one of the miracles of this mass: here the second tenors and basses enter, and Byrd creates a moment glowing with warmth from inside. The third and final section begins with a gently intensified imploring of peace. When the “Dona nobis pacem” (“Grant us peace”) comes, we are lead far away, to a place of indescribable spiritual profundity and beauty.

To return to the real world, I have chosen the brilliant, glittering Ascension motet, Ascendit Deus by Peter Philips.

Richard Farrant’s two famous Lenten anthems, Hide not thou thy face from us and Call to remembrance are classics. Their appeal is due to the perfect, straight-forward setting of the English words to music. Each phrase of text (and its meaning!) seem inseparable from the music accompanying it.

Christopher Tye had a gift for composing anthems which were concise and skillfully put together. Sing unto the Lord is a perfect example. Each phrase of text is boldly set forth with its own musical setting, and then the piece moves on to the next phrase of text. In our performance, we try to bring out the emotional difference of each varying section. The work develops momentum and ends with strong conviction.

Tye’s O God be merciful is a gem of tenderness and sweet lyricism. The “So be it” ending is a peaceful “Amen”. We end our program with one of the best happy, rousing English anthems of Byrd, Praise our Lord. The intricate polyphonic interplay between the voices is amazing and a delight to hear. The voices “open up” in the thrilling and soaring conclusion.

Dennis Keene - 2014