Musica Sacra

A Tudor Legacy

October, 26, 2013

The Heyday of English Sacred Music

A Tudor Legacy

The "Magnificat" and "Nunc Dimittis" from William Byrd's Great Service and selections from Thomas Morley's First Service, as well as motets by Tallis, Weelkes, and Gibbons.

Listen to Musica Sacra rehearse Byrd's Nunc Dimittis

The end of the Tudor era was a time of burgeoning growth in English culture: what Shakespeare, Bacon and Donne were to the literary arts, Byrd, Gibbons and Morley were to the musical arts. Henry VIII's establishment of the Anglican Church required composers to use the English language in their sacred compositions. They, in turn, were like kids in a candy store, free to apply the descriptive tools they’d been honing in their madrigals to create affective and moving sacred music.

Venue

Tickets

Advance ticket sales for this 8:00 concert have closed, however, some tickets remain and will be available at the door beginning at 7:00 PM. We hope to see you at the concert.

Concert Program Notes

Musica Sacra initiates its 2013-2014 season with A Tudor Legacy: the Heyday of English Sacred Music. There is definitely a resurgence of interest in the Tudor era right now, as evidenced by the Showtime series The Tudors, and Hilary Mantel's trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the first two volumes of which garnered her two awards of the Man Booker Prize. The Tudor era commenced with King Henry VII's assumption to the throne of England in 1485 and ended with the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. The reign of the Tudor dynasty oversaw a time of economic wealth and a commensurate rise in the literary and performing arts. This flourishing reached its apogee during Elizabeth's reign with the literary writings of William Shakespeare, John Donne, and Francis Bacon, and the musical compositions of William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Weelkes, Thomas Morley, and Thomas Tallis.

From a religious standpoint, England broke new ground during the Tudor era. Like other Reformation critics of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, who broke away from it when they were unable to reform it, Henry VIII decreed that worship should take place in the vernacular rather than Latin, a language not spoken by any of the common people. Unlike Luther and Calvin, however, Henry had much more personal and political reasons for wanting to secede. As Ross Parker, a former bass in Musica Sacra and the editor of our edition of Morley's First Service wrote:

In 1528, King Henry VIII decided that he wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. She had only produced one female heir, Mary Tudor, in twenty years of marriage, and Henry desperately wanted a son to succeed the throne. Henry VIII was dissatisfied with the Pope's refusal to grant an annulment, and he consulted his advisors to devise a strategy to obtain his wishes. This led to the divorce of not only Catherine but the Pope as well, as the Act of Supremacy of 1532 established the king as the supreme head of the English church.

This new church required a new liturgy. Again, as Ross put it:

An official English liturgy was not adopted until the reign of Edward VI with the Act of Uniformity of 1549. The same year Thomas Cranmer, appointed as archbishop in 1533 by Henry VIII, published the first Book of Common Prayer, which established the new English Communion service as well as the offices of Matins and Evensong. Although music was not a high priority for the liturgical reformers, Cranmer wrote briefly on the subject: In mine opinion, the song that shall be made thereunto would not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, for every syllable a note. Unlike some of the more draconian protestant reformers such as Calvin, however, he did not actually outlaw polyphony. Nevertheless, the earliest music for the English church was very conservative. At first, composers simply adapted Sarum* chant melodies to fit English text. Soon these melodies became harmonized, and by the time Elizabeth I assumed the throne in 1559, four-part choral writing had again become the norm. Chordal, homophonic texture gradually gave way to imitative polyphony as composers dared to be more adventurous. Text setting, however, remained mainly syllabic; melismas, lines of melody occurring on one syllable, rarely extended beyond a handful of notes except for special cases such as the final Amen. It is impossible to ascertain what Cranmer would have desired, but perhaps he would have been pleased with this compromise.

Matins, or Morning Prayer, was the primary form of worship in the Anglican Church well into the 20th century. Unlike the Catholic Church, which celebrated the Eucharist every Sunday, the Anglican Church used the order of Morning Prayer as their main service, celebrating the rite of Communion typically only once a month, usually on the first Sunday. For this reason, the British common people would have been well acquainted with the office of Morning Prayer, whereas the laity of the Roman Catholic faith would not. Throughout the history of the Anglican Church British composers have set the components of the Office of Morning Prayer: the Venite, or Psalm 95, which is a call to worship; the Te Deum, a hymn of praise; and the Benedictus, a hymn of thanksgiving uttered by Zechariah upon the birth of his son John the Baptist, taken from the Gospel of Luke. For the Service of Holy Eucharist they set the Kyrie and Credo, while for the Evening Service they set the Magnificat, the hymn of social justice spoken by Mary upon her visit to her similarly pregnant cousin Elizabeth as described in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, and the Nunc dimittis, spoken by an old man, Simeon, upon seeing the infant Jesus brought to the temple. Some composers composed settings for all three services and compiled them together. The settings for Morning Prayer and for communion you hear tonight are taken from Thomas Morley's First Service, while Byrd's Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are taken from his First Service, also known as The Great Service. For information about the Morley Service and Byrd's religious background, I will once again quote Ross Parker.

Thomas Morley (c. 1557-1602), renowned as a composer, theorist, and organist, was one of the most influential figures of Elizabethan music. The earliest mention of Morley dates from 1574, where he was promised the position of organist and choirmaster of Norwich Cathedral as soon as it became vacant. 
He had to wait until 1583, but he only stayed there until 1587. By 1791, he was the organist at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, a position he held until he died in 1602.

Of all the genres of music in which he composed during his brief lifetime, Thomas Morley is least known for his sacred music. His secular works are numerous—many of them have become staples of madrigal groups—but his sacred output is comparatively small, comprising three services and a handful of anthems. His First Service, composed for five-part choir, is unique in the repertoire in that it is the only known service to combine all the contemporary styles of composition. Some of the movements are elaborate verse anthems in which the musical texture alternates between passages for full choir and passages for a soloist (or group of soloists) with organ accompaniment. Other movements are antiphonal anthems, which are sung by a divided choir. The two choirs are labeled decani and cantoris, the former standing on the side of the deacon and the latter standing on the side of the precentor. Finally, one movement is entirely homophonic [all the voices move together, as they do in a typical church hymn].

Morley sets the Venite as an antiphonal anthem into which he interjects a single verse for four voices. He makes extensive use of antiphony, much of which is used to illustrate parallel sections of the text. For example, the decani choir sings, "For the Lord is a great God," to which the cantoris choir responds, "And a great king above all gods." Listen also for the rapid alternation between choirs at the start of the Gloria Patri, the universal ending for all canticles.

The Te Deum, another canticle sung at Matins, is the most extensive text of the English service. Morley's setting is in the form of a verse anthem, but it incorporates antiphony to illustrate textual symmetry. The opening verse is a transcription for alto solo of the Sarum intonation for the Te Deum. [The Sarum Rite was the order of worship in England initiated by Osmund, the Bishop of Salisbury (the Latin name for which is Sarum), in the 11th century and developed thereafter throughout the British Isles up to the time Elizabeth abolished it in 1559.] This is followed, as is often the case in this service, by a verse for a trio of soloists. The two choirs then precede in alternation as first the angels and then the Cherubim and Seraphim sing their praises to God. It is curious that Morley chooses to end the first part with the text that usually begins the second paragraph: "Thou art the king of glory, O Christ." Nonetheless, listen to the texture's increasing complexity as Morley breaks into imitative polyphony. A similar polyphonic outburst on the text, "To keep us this day without sin," concludes the second part. The final verse is for two soprano and two alto soloists. Listen to the voices echo each other on the plea, "O Lord," before they engage in imitation.

Morley sets the Benedictus as a verse anthem; he makes occasional use of the semi-chorus, but the two choruses are never used antiphonally. Once again, the movement opens with a verse sung by soloist which is followed by a verse for trio. Several other verses are scattered throughout the piece. Imitative polyphony is only used sparingly, the foremost example of it occurs at the text, "Might serve him without fear," where the upper two parts are in canon at the fifth. Notice how the demands of strict canon cause a simultaneous cross relation—a simultaneous sounding of the extremely dissonant interval of a minor second—of A and A flat between the alto and tenor voices as they sing "all the days of our life."

In the Anglican tradition, the Kyrie is the response to the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the book of Exodus representing the summary of the law. The Kyrie consists of two responses; the first follows each of the first nine commandments and the second follows the tenth. Morley's setting is entirely homophonic, and the final response is a simple extension of the first.

Morley treats the Credo as an antiphonal anthem. Listen to the alternation between the two choirs on "God of God" and "Light of light" and how the phrase "Very God of very God" is echoed by the second choir. Note the text painting on the text, "Both the quick and the dead," where the "quick" is represented by a fast, dotted rhythm. The movement concludes with a burst of melodic and rhythmic excitement on the text, "And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

William Byrd was born in Lincoln, but spent his childhood in London, where he was likely a pupil of Tallis. He became a joint organist with Tallis at the Chapel Royal in 1572, and stayed in London until 1593. One of the defining features of Byrd's life, both personal and musical, was his commitment to Catholicism. This was especially dangerous in Elizabethan England, where recusancy, the [commitment to Roman Catholicism expressed by] refusal to attend Church of England services, was outlawed, forcing all Catholic worship underground. Byrd was closely associated with the recusant cause. Although Byrd's Catholic affiliations were no secret and his name appeared on lists of known recusants, he never ran into any problem with the authorities. As one of Elizabeth I's favorite composers, he enjoyed the protection of the crown and was even able to publish three Latin masses without fear of prosecution.

Each of the opening phrases of William Byrd's Magnificat and Nunc dimittis outline the same harmonic progression, thereby associating the two works with each other. In his compositions setting Latin texts, Byrd more closely follows the traditional Renaissance style, in which music serves as a vehicle for the text rather than illuminating its meaning. In his works set to English texts, however, Byrd revels in depicting the emotions inherent to the text, as demonstrated in both of the works you hear tonight. While he may not use melismas, he makes up for their lack with multiple iterations of the melodic line for each phrase of text by all vocal parts, creating the texture known as polyphony. Phrases describing excitement or joy, such as "and my spirit hath rejoiced" ascend in melodic line and are repeated at higher intervals. Phrases connoting power, such as "He has showed strength with His arm," are set with longer note values to underscore the sense of mightiness. The dotted rhythm on "scattered" and leaps through intervals in the melody, along with the dense texture caused by close imitation of that line among the parts, convey the scattering of the proud. Byrd sets text that indicates God's mercy, such as "for His mercy is on them that fear Him" and "He hath filled the hungry with good things," with slower note values and a lower vocal tessitura to express God's compassion.

Tallis also set religious texts in the Latin language, as evidenced in tonight's setting of O sacrum convivium, a text celebrating the profound mystery of the Eucharist by the 13th century Dominican friar and priest Thomas Aquinas. It provides an excellent example of the Renaissance polyphonic style as vehicle for relaying the text: while lovely, the music provides no clue to the text's meaning.

Once again I turn to Ross Parker to provide the background for Gibbons's O Clap your Hands:

Although Orlando Gibbons is best known today as a composer of vocal music, he was considered by his contemporaries to be primarily a keyboard player. Upon his visit to Westminster Abbey, the French ambassador remarked: "The organ was touched by the best finger of that age, Mr. Orlando Gibbons." His musical career began at King's College, Cambridge, where he served as a chorister from 1596-98. By 1615, he was an organist of the Chapel Royal, and in 1623 he was installed as organist of Westminster Abbey. In 1622, he received his D. Mus. degree from Oxford. His eight-part anthem O Clap your Hands was likely written as the examination exercise for his doctorate.

O Clap your Hands is a contrapuntal masterwork. The text is Psalm 47, and Gibbons sets it in two parts. In the first section, the eight voices are used in independent counterpoint. Note how the characteristic rhythmic gesture on the opening phrase "O clap your hands together"—which starts in the tenor and is rapidly imitated by the other voices—culminates as all the parts "clap their hands" in unison. On the text "He shall subdue the people under us," the melodic exuberance of the preceding measures yields to a more "subdued" motive composed of four repeated notes. The second section, beginning with the text "God is gone up with a merry noise" continues the excitement of the first. On the text "O sing praises unto our God," Gibbons breaks his vocal forces into two four-part choirs. Listen to how the two choirs rapidly alternate singing short fragments of the text, with one choir entering before the other has finished. Gibbons uses the same technique near the end of the anthem, on the text "For God which is highly exalted / doth defend the earth, as it were with a shield." The stoic homophony with which these lines are set gives way to the joyful exuberance of the concluding Gloria Patri. On the text "Glory be to the Father", the cross relations create jarring juxtapositions, after which the anthem concludes with a joyful, euphonic Amen.

Many devotées of Renaissance choral music are familiar with Thomas Tomkins's masterful setting of When David Heard, the text of which recounts King David's reaction to the news that his son Absalom, who had led a rebellion against his father, had himself been killed. It is a strongly emotive text, and, 
as you will hear tonight, Tomkins is not the only Tudor composer to have set it. Thomas Weelkes, 
another prodigiously prolific madrigal composer and just four years younger than Tomkins, also wrote a very affecting setting. Tomkins relays David's shock and disbelief over his son's death by means of a solo voice anticipating the other five on "Oh." He captures David's frenzied grief over his son's demise through imitative polyphony in which the voices enter at ever shorter intervals, creating a sense of breathlessness. As does Tomkins, Weelkes ends his work by moving into the major mode at the last moment with the reiterated text, "Oh, Absalom, my son." Weelkes' use of homophony at the last suggests David having been overwhelmed by the tragic realization of his new life without Absalom.

While British composers continued over the years to write music for Anglican worship, those works have failed to reach the broader audience outside of church walls. The profusion of composers writing contemporaneously and abundantly in praise of God occurred only in this magic era of seventy-some years, leaving the English-speaking world with a rich legacy of gorgeous music in its own language. It was, indeed, the heyday of British sacred music.

© 2013 Mary Beekman except where noted. All rights reserved. No portion of this document except cited passages may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.