Early Music News
With the appearance this year of Volume 5, Chapelle du Roi’s survey of Tallis’s output is just past the halfway mark. The newcomer is a companion to Volume 4, both having the subtitle ‘Music for the Divine Office’; three years have elapsed since the earlier disc came out, though all the choral material was recorded in l998. Buck up, Signum!
The music, thought to date from late in the reign of Henry VIII or from the time of Mary Tudor, consists of hymns and responsories for the Canonical Hours, which were the eight services from Matins to Compline celebrated in monastic houses. The booklet notes by Nick Sandon are not an easy read, but they repay close study. He tells us that the Divine Office was not confined to the monasteries, but was observed also in cathedrals and collegiate chapels, and – in abbreviated form – in royal and noble chapels too. These pieces were presumably written for the Chapel Royal, of which Tallis was a Gentleman by 1543.
There are nine responsories spread across the two discs. They alternate plainchant with polyphony, the polyphonic sections being based on the plainchant. Some are solo responsories, where the versicle is composed; others are the newer type, familiar from Taverner’s settings of Dum transisset, where the versicle is chanted. The latter are on a larger scale: any newcomer to this wonderful music could not do better than start with Loquebantur variis linguis, the penultimate item in Volume 4. Written for Vespers on the feast of the Pentecost, its rich, seven-part texture celebrates ‘the wonderful works of God’. Videte miraculum, for the feast of the Purification, is more than twice as long but no less euphonious, even ecstatic.
Whereas in the polyphonic sections of the responsories the cantus firmus is sometimes in the tenor, in the hymns it is heard in the topmost voice. The hymns are simpler than the responsories, but by no means lacking in ingenuity: Jam Christus astra ascenderat in Volume 4 even has the plainchant in canon. Four of the seven hymns are for Compline, two of them Jesu salvator saeculi in Volume 4 and one of the settings of Te lucis ante terminum in Volume 5 being based on the same plainchant, which itself is closely related to the melody of the second version of the latter.
The choral hymns and responsories in Volume 5 are complemented by Tallis’s organ music, most of which is liturgical. Five pieces are representatives of that charming oddity, the hymn where the odd-numbered verses are played rather than sung. Where the text warrants it, organ pieces by other 6th-century composers are included, as are reconstructions of faburden verses newly composed by John Caldwell. Thus, Ex more docte mistico has four verses of chant, two of faburden and two organ pieces by John Redford and Anon before we hear the well-known piece by Tallis, with its ear-tickling false relations.
Alistair Dixon draws out lively and impassioned singing from his Chapelle du Roi, the only defect being an occasional rawness when the male altos are on the top line, and he shows a wholly admirable grasp of structure and balance. Andrew Benson-Wilson is equally skilled in coaxing the wheezy old organ at Knole into life and in playing with fleetness and clarity. Sandon’s notes are supplemented in Volume 5 by good articles from Caldwell and Benson-Wilson. This month’s booklet gremlin is to be found at work in Volume 4, where the last three verses of the hymn Sermone blando are missing.