Tallis’ Spem in Alium is a one-off masterpiece that stands out of musical history like Beethoven’s 9th or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Although it was by no means the only piece written for 40 parts in the high Renaissance, and was perhaps inspired by a piece for these forces presented in England by the Italian composer Striggio, it takes a totally different approach to those continental composers who wrote occasionally for massed forces. Tallis gives every single line its own individual personality, and the counterpoint is driven right through the piece with astonishing complexity. The effect is one of shifting kaleidoscopic colour, a feeling not just of looking up at the stars on a clear night but of being able to get closer to them, surrounded by light and activity. There seems most certainly to be a connection to the Dukes of Norfolk, Catholic recusants, though scholars argue over whether it is a piece written during the reign of Mary (often associated with the biblical figure of Judith, the source of the text), or whether it was an answer to the virtuosic challenge of Striggio in the 1570s. It is certainly a piece which rings out the insistent argument of Catholic Tallis, that God’s people should seek his mercy.
So our programme is really about the legacy of Tallis, a composer who served four monarchs and adapted his style for each. Herbert Howells was not as intensely religious as Tallis, but his Requiem is one of his most intense and personal works. It predates the death of his young son, but that event would overlay the work with meaning for Howells in later years. In the two ‘Requiem aeternam’ movements, the building up of contrapuntal texture is very much influenced by English Renaissance music, and the effects of colour and light are beautifully developed. But Howells, like Vaughan Williams whom he so much admired, had found the traditional modal style of harmony liberating and inspiring. You can hear that in the opening of the concert, when we move from the short, beautiful ‘Salvator Mundi’ by Tallis (now writing under Elizabeth I), to the opening of the Requiem, setting the same text and reinhabiting the same very English modal mood that connected the English romantics to their Renaissance forebears. The two movements that set English versions of the psalms are inhabited by a pastoral quality that defines the style of Howells in much of his music in the interwar years. The outer movements build up denser textures with characteristically English false relations embedded in the harmony and you can hear a cathedral-like quality in their architecture – Howells described Gloucester Cathedral as ‘a pillar of fire in my imagination’.
The English modal mood was caught by none better than Vaughan Williams himself. The three pieces we present alongside other works by Tallis in the second half of the concert span the twentieth century, rather like the range we find in Tallis, from ‘Sancte Deus’, a dark, spiritually intense piece written during the reign of Henry VIII, to the bright Pentecostal sunshine of ‘Loquebantur’, setting the glorious riot of voices in seven-part counterpoint. The earliest piece we sing by Vaughan Williams is a partsong, ‘Rest’, which is clearly located in the nineteenth century partsong tradition, which produced music for choirs like the Durham Singers in great profusion. It’s gentle and romantically sentimental. ‘Mr Valiant for Truth’ was written several decades later in the 1940s, and like the Fifth Symphony it turns wartime reflection on loss and sorrow into music of simplicity and great spiritual affirmation. ‘Silence and Music’ is late period Vaughan Williams, a setting of words by his second wife Ursula, his contribution to the ‘Garland for the Queen’, a collection of partsongs from leading composers that revisited a musical idea mooted originally for the first Elizabeth. The modal harmonies Vaughan Williams develops in music like this are so tightly and obsessively developed that they really do hark back not so much to the celebratory music of Elizabethan Tallis, but to the dark and mysterious ‘Sancte Deus’, which seems almost to come from another age.
This is music by composers whose lives took them into different musical and spiritual moods but who speak to one another clearly, shedding colour and light on one another, and culminating in a musical tapestry as extraordinary as any Renaissance stained-glass window would have been to a pilgrim coming to a Cathedral for the first time on a sunlit morning.
(c) Julian Wright, February 2019