Moving performances of three Tudor composers by The Tudor Consort

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart
Music by three Tudor composers

Robert Wylkynson: Salve Regina and Jesus autem transiens – Creed (Credo in Deum à 13)
John Sheppard: The Lord’s Prayer; I give you a new commandment; Libera nos’, salva nos (I) and (II); In manus tuas; Media vita in morte sumus
Thomas Tallis: If ye love me, keep my commandments; In manus tuas

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Saturday 6 June, 7:30 pm

The Tudor Consort returned to its origins with this concert at the Catholic Basilica (as we used to call it). Its focus was on 500 years ago, and two anniversaries. Robert Wylkynson died that year and John Sheppard was born – both approximatrions. Putting it in historic perspective, as Michael Stewart made short introductory remarks that set the scene, Henry VIII had just come to the throne, after his father, the first Tudor king Henry VII died, in 1509.

Wylkynson was a contemporary of early Renaissance composers like Ockeghem and Josquin des Prez and ?lesser English composers like Robert Fayrfax and William Cornish. His career fell largely during the reign of Henry VII (who won the throne with the Battle of Bosworth in 1485), when Catholicism was still the established religion. Though Protestant movements had been challenging many of the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church for a couple of centuries – for example with translation of the Bible into vernacular languages. Thus his music is suffused with elaborate polyphony, prolonged melismata, in Latin of course.

Though both Tallis and Sheppard were and remained Catholics, both accommodated themselves to the fairly mild musical demands of Henry VIII’s reign, but had to make much more radical changes during the six years of Edward VI’s reign from 1547. He imposed the far more rigorous (and violent) laws of a more thoroughgoing Protestantism, in both doctrine and liturgy, where Latin was decidedly out. Sheppard died at about the last year of Mary I’s reign (1553 – 1558), when determined Catholicism sought to regain lost ground.

Three of the Sheppard anthems and one of Tallis’s were in Latin, so probably pre-1547, while the English settings of the two composers, The Lord’s Prayer, If you love me and I give you a new commandment were written after Edward’s accession.

So it was Wylkynson’s fine Salve Regina that opened; the first words an arresting exclamation, which quickly calmed with a brief solo soprano that led on to the gentle prayer-like, sentimental if you like, body of the poem. They took care with the expressive dynamics available between the subdued men’s parts and the rest, delighting in their command of a lot of high-lying music for the sopranos. There were many details, involving individual voices, and smaller groups within the choir that I’m sure held the audience’s delighted attention.

It was interesting to compare the expansive and rich sounds of this choir, so beautifully adapted to this acoustic with the less comfortable sounds of the Wellington Youth Orchestra a week before, in a space not designed for them.

The second of Wylkynson’s only four surviving works was the Creed, or Credo, the words looking the same as the Credo of the Mass. This one a canon setting for thirteen male voices: Christ moving among the twelve apostles who were ranged around a bare white cloth-covered table; Michael Stewart himself sang Christ. A 1300 reproduction of the apostles illustrated the piece in the programme, with balloons around the relevant words of each. This too was a much more than plain, hymn-like setting, plenty of rhetoric and dramatic detail, clearly conceived to keep the congregation turned on.

That ended Wylkynson’s contribution. Then came English motets, or anthems I suppose, two by Sheppard and one by Tallis. As well as the diktat demanding the liturgy in English, came the edict against fancy musical setting, burdened with decoration and elaborate polyphony. The change was almost shocking: one note to a syllable which meant you get through the text much faster, and the loss of the magic wrought by an only partly understood language. (No doubt a heretical remark, but I suspect shared by many atheists as well as believers).

So we had, not Pater Noster, but ‘Our Father’, and I give you a new commandment by Sheppard, both sung by a reduced choir of around ten, of men and women, again including Stewart as leader and singer. And they were more straight-forward with less variety of dynamics and colour but beautifully balanced and expressive.

In between came Tallis’s beautiful If you love me, keep my commandments, evidently widely known and performed, witness Wikipedia. Though spare in its numbers of voices, detail and clarity made up for volume and density.

Latin returned for the rest of the concert: two settings by Sheppard of Libera nos, salva nos, probably from before 1547. This was the full choir, the harmonies were still rich and dark, the polyphony elaborate, over the bass that pronounced the original cantus firmus, revelling in the Catholic permissiveness; the other setting was shorter, stylistically similar.

Then two settings, one each by Tallis and Sheppard, of In manus tuas, described for those erudite in Catholic liturgy, as ‘a responsory for the late evening service of Compline’ (Compline is the last office of the day in monastic ritual). Here the choir was again stripped back to about 10, and though in Latin, was a more economical and simply moving. The Sheppard version was a little more lyrical, emitting more warmth, more variety in the use of various parts of the choir, men and women separately at times, much of it calm. The men alone brought it to a hushed conclusion.

The biggest work on the programme was Sheppard’s Media vita in morte sumus. It is a Latin antiphon which the composer has embedded in the separate Nunc dimittis, a traditional ‘Gospel Canticle’ of Night Prayer (Compline).

Stewart’s programme note quoted the surmise that its length and emotional intensity suggested something more than mere liturgical purpose; perhaps for a memorial service. So it moves majestically, in meandering harmonies, where certain words, the Responses themselves, were sung with compelling force: ‘Sancte Deus’ …’Sancte fortis’ … ‘Sancte et misericors Salvator’ …  The Nunc Dimittis stood in sharp contrast, sung in plain chant, before the return to the second part of the antiphon which resumed the sustained sense of religious ecstasy of the earlier part. There was a certain sameness after a few minutes, but then a realisation of the unique strength of the composition and its likely impact on listeners in the 16th century.

At the end of this moving performance the choir sang a tribute to Jack Body who had died a fortnight earlier: the fifth of his Five Lullabies, written in 1989.



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