The cathedral tradition of England has produced some of the most extraordinarily beautiful choral music ever written. This is, in part, because English choirs have been considered the best-trained in the world by many observers for centuries. The system of educating boys and, increasingly in our own day, girls, in the art of choral singing through the churches, colleges, and cathedrals of Great Britain is the backbone of that achievement.
Turmoil in England: Thomas Tallis and John Taverner
The Tudor era was a time of extreme political and religious turmoil. The moment Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England, the church and the state became one. Any offense to the church could also be construed as an offense to the state. “Lex orandi, lex credendi”—how people worship reflects, even determines, what they believe—was a theological commonplace of the era. Therefore, any Catholic could be subjected to sanction, even prison. Every time thereafter that a new monarch came to power, the rules of the game changed. The reforms instituted in the Book of Common Prayer, of course, brought about a sea change in musical life in England. Claude Palisca writes in his A History of Western Music, “In 1548, Edward VI admonished the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Minster that henceforth they must sing only in English, ‘settyng thereunto a playn and distincte note, for every sillable one’—in other words, a plain, syllabic, homophonic style. Such a drastic change from the highly ornate, florid, massive Catholic music of the early part of the century must have struck English composers as catastrophic.” Of course, these restrictions were gradually loosened. Nevertheless, the Catholic Rite had to be replaced almost over night.
Among those who rose to the occasion was Thomas Tallis, widely regarded as the most fluent and stylistically diverse and assured composer of his era, a time now regarded as the height of the English cultivation of church music. Performance standards, as well, must have been particularly high as many foreign observers have commented in writing of their astonishment at hearing English cathedral choirs. There is another curious factor which may have helped to establish Tallis as the pre-eminent composer of his time. He and his student William Byrd (who was a target of Francis Walsingham, the queen’s puritanical Secretary of State and spymaster who brought down Mary, Queen of Scots, in the so-called Babington Plot) were given a 21-year monopoly on publishing polyphonic music by Elizabeth I. The fact that both men were unreformed Catholics with special permission from the queen to continue practicing their faith must have rankled some of their Protestant colleagues and points to Elizabeth I’s recognition of genius and a strong work ethic when she saw it. The three motets by Tallis on our program illustrate the varying degrees of complexity of music for the Anglican Rite from the most simple and syllabic, If ye love me, to the slightly more complex O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit, to the rich and ornate 5-voice Latin motet for the Catholic Rite, O sacrum convivium.
John Taverner is undoubtedly the most important musical figure of the generation before Thomas Tallis. Taverner’s 6-voice festal masses, of which the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas is one, are supreme examples of the lush, highly ornate style of the pre-Reformation period in England. He was born in either Boston or Tatershall, south Lincolnshire, around 1490 and his first post seems to be at the Collegiate Church of Tatershall, where he was a clerk. But he was soon to move to Cardinal College, Oxford (now Christ Church):
“Taverner’s reputation in 1526 must have been considerable, because in September of that year Cardinal Wolsey wrote to the Bishop of Lincoln to try and secure him a good choirmaster ‘for my college at Oxford,’ hinting that Taverner would be acceptable. On October 17, John Longland, Bishop of Lincoln, replied to Wolsey’s letter to the effect that he had sent for ‘Taverner, a singing man, to be Informator of the Children of Wolsey’s Chapel in his college at Oxford, but cannot induce him to give up his living at Tatershall and the prospect of a good marriage he would lose by removal.”
After some negotiation Taverner accepted the post. Only a few years later he got mixed up with some Lutheran zealots, also at Cardinal College, who were thrown in prison. But Wolsey let Taverner off the hook, “saying that he was but a musician, and so he escaped.” Nevertheless, in 1530, Taverner resigned his post, possibly because of the trouble he had gotten into but also perhaps because his religious convictions were sincere. It is widely believed that after 1530 Taverner ceased composition altogether. A few years later he went to work for Thomas Cromwell dissolving monasteries.
The foregoing shows that we live in an age wherein it is possible to have a comprehensive view of musical history, the ability and inclination to look back over vast stretches of time, which would have been foreign to the average person living in the English Renaissance. Sure, traditions were entrenched in the minds of kings and scholars and time passed more slowly than today’s pace of progress, but the very thought of performing music from farther back than a generation earlier would have seemed backward and pointless. Not today. Emerging from the political cataclysm known as the 20th-century has, in my opinion, forced us to reevaluate artistic principles and come to a more humanistic approach to producing art. The maddening complexity of serial music – music that oftentimes forcefully rejected even the very notion of being understood except by the minutest group of cognoscenti – has all but dissipated in favor of music that we all can approach without fear of being humiliated. Looking backward helps remind us that human beings are astonishingly creative and seek connection. We’re social beings, after all. The concert experience should help to connect the dots of our own artistic heritage. Gabriel Jackson’s music achieves this while still saying something new.
Born in Bermuda in 1962 to an Anglican clergyman and trained at Canterbury Cathedral and the Royal School of Music, Gabriel Jackson is one of today’s leading composers, especially for choral music. Jackson has won numerous awards, most recently two British Composer Awards, and his music is now being performed and recorded by many of the world’s leading choirs.
I am especially pleased to perform Jackson’s music again because he fits snugly into Bella Voce’s core aesthetic: presenting new music with direct connection to the ancient. Jackson’s ties to the Tudor-era composers go back to his days as a treble in the Canterbury Cathedral Choir, where he sang the music of those masters daily. His affinity and connection to this music, as I see it, are twofold: Jackson uses and manipulates the compositional techniques and language of modality, isorhythm, and voice-leading of the Tudor era; and he strives for a clarity of expression that is both sonically rich but straightforward.
The result upon hearing Jackson’s music is the sense that if functional harmony and monody were never introduced by the likes of Caccini and Monteverdi (as in the Vespers of 1610), the tradition of a particularly Tudor counterpoint might have eventually arrived in something like Jackson’s music. This is not to say that his music is purely derivative. After all, music did change fundamentally at the dawn of the 17th century and then experienced other such fundamental changes through the likes of Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and John Adams. Instead, what we have is a kind of post-Postmodernism. Jackson can quote the techniques of his compositional forebears with no trace of irony; in fact, it is deeply earnest. It is organic in its unfolding, connected to tradition, yet unmistakably of the present.
Bella Voce commissioned “in the half-light of dusk” from Gabriel Jackson in 2013 for the occasion of our 30th anniversary. The work is now published by Oxford University Press.
According to the vocal score, published by Oxford University Press, the Edinburgh Mass was commissioned by “The Very Revd Graham Forbes, Provost of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, with additional funds provided by the Leche Trust and the Kenneth Leighton Trust. First performed by the choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral choir, directed by Matthew Owens, on St Cecilia’s Day 2001.”