The 16th century fashion for the 40-part motet: Tudor Consort sing Striggio and Tallis


The 40-part motets of Striggio and Tallis and other liturgical music by Tallis

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart, with Peter Maunder (sackbut) and Douglas Mews (chamber organ)

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill Street

Saturday 23 July, 7.30pm

Tallis imitates Striggio
On Saturday’s Classical Chart, broadcast on Radio New Zealand Concert, presenter David Morriss took special pains to introduce the CD sitting at No 1; it was a 16th century motet by Italian composer Alessandro Striggio. The piece, sung on the top-ranked CD by I Fagiolini, was written to be sung by 40 distinct voices, each with his and her own part: ‘Ecce beatam lucem’.Striggio was court composer to the Medicis in Florence and the motet was written for the wedding of a Medici to the daughter of an Austrian noble family, so the music was appropriately composed by an Italian to words by a Viennese court poet (in Latin, naturally).

Morriss departed from custom by telling us that he was a member of The Tudor Consort which was to sing the piece in Wellington’s Catholic Cathedral that very evening, and suggesting that this live performance would be even better than that of I Fagiolini. Enough Wellingtonians (and perhaps others) heard the message to pour into the city on a cold, wet evening, making parking difficult in all the Thorndon streets in the neighbourhood of the Cathedral.

The basilica was packed and the unusual step was taken of opening the organ gallery for the overflowing crowd.

The Consort’s history with the Tallis motet
Now this was a special occasion for The Tudor Consort: 2011 is the choir’s 25th anniversary; at their 20th anniversary, for which founding director Simon Ravens had came out from Britain to conduct one of the concerts that celebrated the occasion. It was the one that included the 40-part motet, ‘Spem in alium’, by one Thomas Tallis; it was in St Mary of the Angel’s church (the first and rather spectacular concert of the mini-festival had been in The Great Hall of the former National Museum
now the school of arts of Massey University).

The Tallis motet had been among the works sung by the choir in its early years – it was conducted during a return visit by Simon Ravens in the International Festival of the Arts in March 1992 – when their concerts routinely filled whatever space they inhabited. I was at that performance, the first ever in Wellington and perhaps in New Zealand. Even more astonishing was the encore – a repetition of the whole motet.

Even without Ravens’ electrifying pre-concert talks, which were similarly packed out, the Tudor Consort’s renown was making a widespread impact.

A peak in Wellington’s musical life
It was just one of several things, however, that generated a high level of activity and excitement that pervaded Wellington’s musical scene at that time, which was bringing large numbers into choral and other concerts.

There were several contributing developments in the mid-1980s: the inauguration of the marvellous (at least in its first decade) international arts festival; the emergence of a vigorous Wellington opera company; the proliferation of chamber music; the increasing contribution to the city’s music by the two separate tertiary music schools through concerts and an annual opera production by each school; the determined growth and energizing of the Wellington orchestra; and the blossoming of new and the reinvigoration of many existing choirs, stimulated in part by Simon Ravens’s brilliant success with The Tudor Consort.

I might also add that the fact that The Evening Post allowed me, from 1987 to the end, and several assistant reviewers, to cover a great deal of the music, is likely to have been of real importance. Typically we contributed around a dozen music reviews each month.

The 40-part motets
Recent research has shown that it was probably the visit of Striggio to London in 1566/67 to sparked Tallis’s interest in writing something comparable.

At this concert the two motets were sung: the Striggio at the beginning and the Tallis at the end.The Striggio was accompanied by sackbut (Peter Maunder on the trombone) and organ (Douglas Mews); it began interestingly, with certain men’s voices penetrating over others, and it was this character that made the experience rather unique in choral performance. I suspect that conductor Michael Stewart’s concerns were with individual detail and not with a conductor’s normal concern: the blending of voices, and it was the very variety of timbres and voice qualities that were audible throughout both the 40-part motets. So the varying size and grain of voices were free from the usual discipline of uniformity. It added enormously to the delight of the whole performances.

During the Striggio all forty singers were arrayed across the front of the sanctuary, but for the Tallis, only 10 were in the front and the rest were spread along the side aisles so that the conductor spent his time turning from front to rear, from side to side, signaling the bewildering entries accurately.

Stewart in the front of his choir presents a lively image. Not given to overly fussy gestures, it is the raised arms that seem to be carry the music to the place where the composers may have imagined their music was directed. His demeanour reminded me of cartoons of Berlioz on the podium, clearly drawn by an artist filled with admiration for the music he was inspiring. Stewart’s gestures seemed to have a similar inspiring effect on his singers.

The Striggio motet was quite short, perhaps six or seven minutes (I didn’t time it) and, compared with the Tallis, with fewer extended passages in which one could sense the full complexity of all those individual voices. The earlier piece seemed to allow more concessions to the style of the usual polyphonic choral setting with far fewer parts apparent.

While the longer more confident lines of interweaving counterpoint of Tallis create an air of greater permanence and moment because there is a denser feeling in his writing.

The other Tallis pieces
Only about half of the 40-strong choir remained to perform the shorter ecclesiastical pieces by Tallis that occupied the rest of the concert.

One could have thought the various short liturgical pieces were merely fillers between the two motets that had surely attracted the crowd. But all those who came because they genuinely loved Renaissance polyphonic choral music would have enjoyed the variety of music that this one composer could bend his talent to: the more complex music for the Catholic ritual compared with the more straight-forward, vertical harmonies, of the pieces for the Anglican rite. The English words of the ‘Magnificat’ and ‘Nunc dimittis’, are set to music that is conscious of the congregation’s comprehension of the words. The organ accompaniment was significant, even in tempo, though not constant as with a traditional hymn; the ‘Nunc dimittis’ ended with a curiously unusual final cadence.

Being conscious of the difference between the Anglican and Catholic (and both Tallis and Byrd had to tread carefully through the switch-back, lethal, religious ferocity that punctuated their lives) threw a new light on the Latin settings of responsories and antiphons where the spiritual impact was sought more through purely musical characteristics – sonority, flowing contrapuntal lines, the pitting of high voices against a bed of men’s more earthbound voices. The two settings of ‘Salvator mundi’, offered an interesting contrast within the traditions of the Catholic liturgy, the second appearing more sonorous and enjoying the warmth of its polyphony, with perhaps a little more attention to the blending of voices – just to show they could do it.

The ‘Loquebantur variis linguis’ caught the attention through its carefully discordant setting of those words, suggesting the polyglot talents of the apostles. ‘Candidi facti sunt’ seemed to play with the listener by starting successively in three different manners, eventually giving space for the tenors’ central plainchant performance.

‘O sacrum convivium’ used the current styles of polyphony in more orthodox manner, and it allowed the audience to enjoy, if it had escaped them before, the chance to hear harmonies involving more sustained contrapuntal passages.

The last motet, ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, more like a hymn in three distinct stanzas, was set as plainsong in the outer two stanzas and polyphony in the second. These examples of Tallis’s music demonstrated further, both the composer’s versatility as he navigated the reefs in religious storms, and the continued, constantly renewal of the choir’s talented singers and their series of imaginative and enterprising directors.

We await a performance of Striggio’s ‘Ecco si beato giorno’, reported to be the mass for 40 to 60 voices from which motet was evidently drawn.

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