Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585)
Queen Katherine Parr & Songs of Reformation
Gaude gloriosa dei mater [17:02]
When Jesus went (Salvator mundi II)* [2:16]
O Lord, give thy holy spirit [2:20]
Hear the voice and prayer [3:03]
Purge me, O Lord [1:50]
Solfaing Song* [2:37]
Verily, verily I say unto you [1:49]
If ye love me [[2:11]
O Lord, in thee is all my trust [2:37]
Libera nos* [1:52]
The Litany [16:30]
Fantasia (O sacrum convivium)* [4:30]
Se lord and behold (Contrafact of Gaude gloriosa; text by Queen Katherine Parr, 1544) [16:69]
Recording venue & dates not specified
OBSIDIAN CD716 [75:36]
Many readers will know of Sing and glorify, the English contrafactum of Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis. This new release from Alamire includes another Tallis contrafactum which was completely unknown until very recently and which here receives its first recording. The story of how Se lord and behold came into being is a fascinating one which is covered comprehensively in David Skinner’s excellent notes. I’ll draw upon those notes to give readers a potted version of the story.
In 1544 King Henry VIII was at war on two fronts, fighting both the French and the Scots. Seeking to rally public support, a special service was planned to take place in St Paul’s Cathedral in May of that year. For the occasion Thomas Cranmer provided an adapted Processional Liturgy, translated into English. That Litany was published anonymously in June 1544 but the scholar Andrew Johnstone has established that the music was in fact composed by Tallis and it’s his edition that’s recorded here. More remarkable still was the way in which Queen Katherine, Henry’s sixth and last wife, became actively involved. She had produced a volume entitled Psalms or Prayers, which was published in 1544. This book contained English paraphrases of fifteen psalms. It’s her paraphrase of Psalm 9 that provided the text for Se lord and behold. It’s unclear who adapted Tallis’s music to fit the English words – was it the composer himself?
The existence of the contrafactum was unknown until 1978 when three musical fragments were discovered behind plasterwork during restoration work at Corps Christi College, Oxford. The music was quickly identified as what appeared to be an early version of Gaude gloriosa but it was only later that the words were identified as part of Queen Katherine’s Psalm 9 paraphrase. David Skinner describes the fusion of Tallis’s music and the Queen’s words as “a full, red-blooded invective to support Henry’s cause”. I don’t think we know for certain that Se lord and behold was sung alongside the Tallis/Cranmer litany at the service in St Paul’s on 23 May 1544 but given the royal contribution to the contrafactum’s creation it must be a strong possibility.
Gaude gloriosa is one of the glories of Tudor liturgical music. The sheer dimensions of the piece alone are quite remarkable and Tallis sustains his polyphonic invention and spins his elaborate structure over a truly ambitious span. The textures are opulent, especially when the full six-part choir is involved. Alamire make a commanding sound in the full choir passages but in the gimmel sections there’s plenty of subtlety. This is a big, confident piece and Skinner’s singers invest the music with a genuine sense of grandeur. This is a very fine performance of a Tudor masterpiece.
Though Se lord and behold is sensibly placed at the opposite end of the programme it’s interesting to hear both versions one after the other on occasion. Alamire are no less successful in putting this piece over. Because the text is in English and the setting syllabic you forego the melismatic writing that is such a glorious feature of the original piece. That’s the main reason I prefer Gaude gloriosa, just as I prefer Spem in alium to Sing and glorify. However, Se lord and behold is a most imposing creation, showing a truly artistic side to Tudor propaganda. As befits a composition designed for a very public – and political – occasion – the performance has a genuine sense of fervour. Fourteen singers are used but at times the ensemble sounds fuller than that.
The Litany is, inevitably, somewhat repetitive in nature but the male voices of Alamire ensure that listeners can never get bored. The cantor is the bass Edward Grint and he is suitably imposing. Cranmer’s words are nothing if not vivid. The litany begins in fairly conventional style with intercessions for divine and saintly assistance followed by pleas for deliverance from various kinds of human frailty. It’s not long, however, before Cranmer has the Pope in his sights, praying for deliverance from “all seditious and privy conspiracy, from the tyranny of the bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities….” There follow intercessions on behalf of King Henry, his Queen, Prince Edward and his half siblings, before prayers on behalf of, inter alia, “the Lords of the Council and all the nobility” and also on behalf of Magistrates. Truly, Cranmer’s litany binds the established church and the state inextricably together. The text is a notable expression of the Henrician Reformation and it’s most interesting to hear it sung.
The remainder of the programme focusses on shorter pieces. All the vocal works are settings of English texts and in all probability, therefore, most, though not all of them, will have been written during the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553). All the performances are excellent and I particularly enjoyed the poised and polished rendition of If ye love me, one of my favourite Tallis works. One piece that is worthy of note is O Lord, in thee is all my trust which is quite unusual among Tudor sacred music in that the piece, which is in triple time, fairly skips along at quite a lively – and wholly appropriate – tempo.
Four of the pieces are played by the viol consort, Fretwork. I must be honest: viol music is not my cup of tea. However, that’s a personal prejudice and there’s no doubting the excellence of Fretwork in these pieces. These instrumental items afford a nice contrast with the vocal pieces. Interestingly, Tallis later revised two of the consort pieces as vocal works, including them in the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae.
This is an absorbing release. Not only is the music wonderful but the story behind some of it is fascinating. Throughout the disc the singing of Alamire, under David Skinner’s expert leadership, is beyond reproach. Surprisingly, I can’t see in the booklet any details of when and where the recordings were made but I assume that the venue was the group’s usual haunt, the Chapel of Arundel Castle. The recorded sound is excellent, capturing the natural resonance of the venue and putting a pleasing bloom on the sound of the voices. As usual with Alamire releases, the documentation is excellent and comprehensive.