TALLIS: Spem in alium / Missa Salve intemerata
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Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585)
Spem in alium Salve intemerata (Mass and motet)
Considering that Thomas Tallis was the finest Englishcomposer of his generation, it is surprising how little weknow about his life. The first time we hear of Tallis is in1530 when he was organist at Dover Priory in Kent: bythen he was clearly a respected professional musician.
We also know that Tallis was described as being 'veryaged' in 1577 and that he died in November 1585.
Taking these three pieces of information together, theconsensus is that Tallis was born around 1505 (thusplacing him in his mid-twenties while working at Dover,in his early-seventies when he was described as 'veryaged', and in his eightieth year when he died). Hardlyconclusive, but there is not much else to go on.
The motet Salve intemerata is a setting of a longprose prayer to the Virgin Mary and is written for fivevoices in an expansively Catholic style. We knownothing of Tallis's whereabouts when he wrote thislarge-scale motet, but we do know that the oldestmanuscript in which the motet survives was copied inthe late 1520s and that the words are recorded in a Bookof Hours which appeared in 1527. Yet in spite of itsearly date, Salve intemerata shows Tallis writing musicof considerable fluency and invention, quite anachievement for a composer in his early twenties. Witha composition portfolio that contained a work assubstantial and proficient as this one, it is not difficult tosee why Tallis was appointed to Dover Priory as ayoung man.
In 1535 Dover Priory was dissolved, and Tallis'sjob with it. By 1537 he was working at the church of StMary-at-Hill in London. St Mary-at-Hill was animportant musical foundation, and from there Tallisseems to have begun his association with the Englishroyal court (in 1577 Tallis was described as 'servingyour royal ancestors for forty years'). It is at this timethat the Missa Salve intemerata may have been written.
The Mass borrows heavily from the motet, particularlyin the Gloria and Credo, yet it shows that Tallis's stylehad matured in the intervening years. More concise,direct, and vocally more pragmatic than the lengthymotet, the Mass is his finest pre-Reformationachievement. The reason that the Missa Salveintemerata is not better known today is that one of thevoice parts requires reconstruction (the Tenor part-bookhas been lost). Fortunately the missing part is the onedirectly above the lowest voice, the easiest one toreconstruct within this texture.
By 1538 Tallis was a senior member of the musicstaff at Waltham Abbey in Essex, but yet again Tallis'sjob dissolved along with the Abbey in 1540.
Undeterred, he moved to the newly-founded secularestablishment at Canterbury Cathedral, where he sang aspart of the choir of twenty-two men and boys. TheReformation had a profound effect on English churchmusic, most tangibly during the reign of Edward VIwhen late-medieval Latin polyphony, as exemplified bythe Salve intemerata and its Mass, became outlawed.
Tallis maintained his craft and his compositional voice,and provided the Church of England with largelyhomophonic music to English texts. He was, above all, apragmatist, and he allowed the intimacy and directnessof expression which this new style required to giveanother dimension to his compositional vision. Indeed,turbulent though this English liturgical revolution musthave been to a lifelong Catholic, Tallis accepted the newmusical order and learnt from it.
Some of Tallis's English-texted music was writtenin the Edwardine years of the Reformation, and the restof it in Elizabethan England. I call and cry began life asan instrumental piece and only later did Tallis addwords to it. Some time later it also became the Latinmotet O sacrum convivium, yet the English word-settingis more fluid and convincing than the Latin version.
Perhaps the reverse is true of With all our heart whoseearliest text is clearly the Latin motet Salvator mundi.
Most interesting of all is the 'Armada' anthem,Discomfort them, which acquired these English wordsthree years after Tallis's death. Having been conceivedas the Latin motet Absterge Domine, the belligerentEnglish text was hurriedly wrapped around the motet'sscaffolding 'on the occasion of the Spanish invasion in1588'.
Tallis served at court under four monarchs duringhis long life (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, andElizabeth) as singer, organist, choir trainer, andcomposer. His musical genius and his years of service atcourt were recognised in 1573 by the granting of alicense which allowed him and his supposed pupilWilliam Byrd to maintain a monopoly over the printingand publication of music and music paper for 21 years.
This extraordinary royal favour seems to have followedhard on the heels of the finest musical achievement ofhis career, the composition of the forty-voice motetSpem in alium. In 1567 the Mantuan composerAlessandro Striggio came to London; he brought withhim Ecce beatam lucem, a motet in forty parts.
According to a recollection of 1611, a music-lovingDuke (possibly the Duke of Norfolk) 'asked whethernone of our Englishmen could set as good a song'.
Consequently, 'Tallis, being very skilful, was felt to trywhether he would undertake the matter, which he did,and made one of forty parts which was sung in the LongGallery at Arundel House'. Arundel House, offLondon's Strand, belonged to Norfolk's father-in-law,the Earl of Arundel, who ran a strong musicalestablishment. Moreover the Earl of Arundel also had acountry residence, Nonsuch Palace, which had anoctagonal banqueting-hall. At Nonsuch Palace theoctagonal hall would presumably have necessitated aperformance of Spem in alium 'in the round', theoctagon accommodating eight choirs of five voiceseach. It is unlikely that early audiences were eitheraware that all forty voices enter together for the firsttime at the fortieth semibreve, or that the piece lasts 69longs (in the Latin alphabet, where I and J are the sameletter, T=19, A=1, L=11, L=11, I=9, S=18, so TALLIS= 69). But those fortunate listeners surely shared themost impressive aural experience of their lives, and thenumber symbolism is a mark of the fact that when Tallisattempted something that must have seemed impossibleto the average musician of his day, he still had techniquein reserve.
This recording of Spem in alium was made using'surround sound' (available on Naxos SACD 6.110111and DVD-A 5.110111). The forty voices were arrangedto form four sides of a huge St-Chad cross: Choirs 1 & 2to the West, 3 & 4 to the North, 5 & 6 to the East, and 7& 8 to the South. The recording was made to celebratethe 500th anniversary of Tallis's birth and the 21stbirthday of Oxford Camerata -- old members of OxfordCamerata met with their new counterparts for thisperformance of Tallis's masterpiece.Jeremy Summerly