For a long time I had the score of a beautiful work in my ’16th century’ folder: O Nata Lux by Thomas Tallis, but for some reason I never performed it with choristers. Until… somebody asked for it when booking for the Save Our Songs Projects. I’m glad I said okay let’s go….
Thomas Tallis lived during pretty much all of the sixteenth century. Together with his friend and colleague, the magnificent William Byrd,he possessed the sole right to publish his works in print, and O Nata Lux was published in a book of sacred works in 1575. The person who had granted them this monopoly was Queen Elizabeth I, an extraordinary woman whose reign gave some stability in a period of grave political and religious turmoil. Also, she loved music and the arts, – we have several good poems by her – and she worked hard to enhance cultural life in her country. To achieve this, she surrounded herself with talented musicians like Tallis.
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Thomas Tallis lived from 1505-1585. He can be seen as a link between early and late 16th century English music.
Renaissance church music hadn’t seen a lot of development for a long time, and Tallis introduced the great polyphonic school into English church music.
Now what is polyphony? We speak of polyphony in a work of music when two or more independent melodies sound together. So if there is a choir with sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, and they sing in 4-part polyphony, their lines start at four different moments in the composition, usually following each other up within the first sentence of the piece. It is like constructing a beautiful cathedral – you start with one wall of stones, and as you build on, the whole becomes a unity, soaring right into the heavens. Tallis constructed his own musical cathedral, in one piece he used 40 voices!
Homophony, on the other hand, is when all the voices in a work sound at the same time. The works by Tallis I used for my Save our Songs Projects have just a little bit of polyphony in them and mostly homophony, as the whole fun of singing polyphony is that you can see and respond to each other when singing. The absolute pinnacle of this style is the aforementioned 40-part motet by Tallis, called Spem in Alium, sometimes mistranslated as ‘I believe in garlic’. He also wrote less complex works, like some beautiful and simple Reformation service music, which is mostly homophonic.
If Ye Love Me is a beautiful example of this less embellished style. As a student, I used to think it was a love song – remember this was before Google, and a lot of things you just had to guess -, but it is actually a ‘motet’ or ‘anthem’ (a biblical text set to music). It is a mix of the polyphonic, and homophonic style, and we are recording this song in our project, each singer in different parts of the world in their own home. The project is not finished yet, but as soon as the video-clip is here I will post it.
As polyphony is pretty difficult to sing, requiring some experience (especially in counting and singing at the same time!), the homophonic style was the one most used in church services so the congregation could sing along. Descant and bass parts would be filled in by trained singers.
Just imagine how all this exquisite music was written at a time when Protestants and Catholics were hacking away at each other! However, Tallis survived all the ruckus, composing his works both in Latin and in English, depending on the religious preference or the tolerance of the reigning monarch. For instance, under Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary), who was a fiercely pro-Spanish catholic, he wrote Latin hymns and masses. Under Elizabeth I (her reign started in 1558), he wrote in English and Latin. Lizzie was a Protestant, but she didn’t mind Thomas’ catholicism. He was all about music, and she simply loved it. Just like we do now.