by Kerry McCarthy.
Oxford, 288 pp., £25.99, October 2020, 978 0 19 063521 3
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On​ 30 January 1540 the monks of Evesham Abbey were singing the Magnificat when messengers from the king interrupted them. ‘The monastery of Evesham was suppressed by King Henry VIII … at evensong time,’ John of Alcester recorded, ‘the convent being in the choir at this verse Deposuit potentes, and would not suffer them to make an end.’ Four years into the dissolution, there were few wealthy abbeys left to seize; the very last was Waltham Abbey, on 23 March 1540, where Thomas Tallis was employed.

Tallis, who was then about 35, had been at Dover Priory when it met a similar fate five years earlier. He left Waltham Abbey with forty shillings, twenty in ‘wages’ and twenty in ‘rewards’; and took with him at least one manuscript, possibly many more, from the abbey library. Lansdowne MS763, now in the British Library, contains the only surviving example of his handwriting (his signature). Within a year he had resurfaced, as Kerry McCarthy puts it in her new biography, in ‘one of the most prestigious musical positions in England, at the head of a list of professional singers hand-picked for the newly reorganised Canterbury Cathedral’.

Tallis was remarkably resilient. He lived to be eighty, having served four monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I) and spent 43 years as a member of the Chapel Royal. Unfortunately for historians, his music and his longevity are all we have to go on, since Tallis left almost nothing about himself. Unlike William Byrd and John Sheppard, he wrote no letters that have survived and never got into trouble with the law. Even his will is unrevealing, with no unusual legacies or defiant statements (Byrd used his to proclaim his allegiance to the pope). McCarthy attributes his self-assurance in both the highest and the lowest musical styles of the day to the difficult trajectory of his career. ‘He did not merely survive constant change: it made him even more capable.’

The scant biographical detail means that it is difficult to explain Tallis’s ability to invent, extend and perfect so many idioms with such authority. Compared with his contemporaries he wrote relatively little and was known to revise old scores, but the corpus that has come down to us is unrivalled in its experimentation. It has often been assumed that he abandoned the Catholic musical forms of his youth and training reluctantly, but McCarthy shows that he started to experiment with radical new styles before he was compelled to do so by Church reformers. He then ran the old and the new forms alongside each other, and continued to revisit and revive styles throughout his life.

Detailed studies on Tallis have begun to appear only recently. The rediscovery of his music came in fits and starts: the Anglican music first, then the shorter Latin motets, then the bigger antiphons and responds, with the forty-part motet Spem in alium looming in the background. In the last twenty years or so this process has accelerated to such a degree that his reputation now rivals, and even surpasses, that of Byrd – something unthinkable not so long ago. John Harley’s biography, published in 2015, attempted the life-and-work format; McCarthy set out to do something different: ‘I decided to build this book around what we still have, rather than lamenting or trying to extrapolate [from] what we no longer have.’ The result is a book that takes scraps of evidence, some of them only vaguely connected with Tallis, and uses them to illuminate an extraordinary body of work.

Her one major discovery is the original text of the epitaph that marked Tallis’s grave in St Alfege Church, Greenwich, until it vanished in the early 18th century. The version of the epitaph that has been used ever since then describes Tallis as having lived in ‘mild and quiet sort’. The original, McCarthy tells us, had ‘in patient quiet sort’. This may not seem significant, but each small touch is helpful: ‘Few prominent composers in any era could be described as “mild”,’ she notes, ‘and in some ways it is a surprising, even discouraging, word to see in this context … It certainly does not fit with the tenacity and fierceness of much of Tallis’s surviving music.’

McCarthy also considers the acoustics of the palaces – Windsor, Hampton Court, Richmond, Whitehall, St James’s and Greenwich – where the Tudor court gathered to hear polyphony.

Whenever the sovereign was present, the floor of the chapel was covered with textiles, and the walls were hung with tapestry. The resulting acoustics would have been far from what we have come to expect in modern recordings and performances of Tallis’s music: small, muted and unforgiving spaces. Some of Tallis’s singing at Hampton Court would also have been done outdoors, most notably in the cloister that adjoined the chapel, built as a stage set for royal prayers and processions.

The way these draperies affected the sound was recognised, but the need to surround the monarch with finery militated against a complete solution. At Whitehall, ‘the largest royal residence anywhere in Europe at the time’, two pits were dug under the choir stalls, ‘hollow acoustic chambers of a type found in many English churches, designed to enhance the resonance of the singers’ voices’. But the stalls were so richly covered with tapestries, the walls with fine hangings and the floors with carpets that ‘there were almost no exposed hard surfaces anywhere in the room. Even the large baptismal font was lined with linen cloth and hung with tapestry.’

McCarthy doesn’t engage with the thorny issue of authentic performance, but she provides a listening guide to modern interpretations of the music she discusses, none of which was recorded in such a space. Other details of performance practice are just as novel to modern practitioners. English music of the early 16th century is admired for its soaring treble parts, but as McCarthy points out, the bass was then seen as the star of the show. On hearing the choir perform in 1515, a visitor from Venice wrote that ‘they did not so much sing as jubilate, and especially the basses, who I think do not have their equal anywhere in the world.’ Another change of emphasis is that contemporary performances rarely follow the direction to use reduced voices. In Tallis’s time, performers took advantage of the dramatic contrast between sections for solo voice – ‘counterverses’ – and the full ensemble. Star soloists such as Robert Philips, who John Foxe said ‘was so notable a singing man (wherein he gloried) that wheresoever he came, the best and longest song, with most counterverses in it, should be set up at his coming,’ were invited to sing the reduced-voice sections. McCarthy describes one occasion when a piece, specially chosen for its many counterverses, was performed after vespers in honour of a renowned visiting singer, and another singer ‘deliberately mangled the text in his own counterverse as a gesture of religious protest’. There are modern parallels among professional singers, of course.

McCarthy doesn’t consider Tallis’s posthumous reception, but she mentions that his Short Service remained in everyday use well into the era of Handel and Arne, helping to establish the 19th-century view of Tallis as the ‘father of English church music’. He is one of a truly tiny band of composers anywhere in Europe from the medieval and Renaissance periods whose music has never been out of use. It hasn’t always been the same Tallis, of course: in the 19th century the only works performed were his most simple chordal writing, such as the Litany or Short Service, and the very largest pieces, such as Spem in alium. Nothing between these two extremes was considered. In the case of the simple music, as Suzanne Cole pointed out in Thomas Tallis and His Music in Victorian England (2008), it was thought that the bigger the choir the better. In 1841, according to a review cited by Cole, the choir of Westminster Abbey was ‘augmented by the voluntary assistance of the eminent professors, to the number of forty’ in order to create a monumental sound. Another review from the same year lists the qualities of Tallis’s ‘old gothic service’ as ‘vastness, gloomy grandeur and ponderous solemnity’. Spem in alium, by contrast, was better known in the 19th century as a wonder of the world than as a piece to be performed. The few attempts to stage it appear eccentric by modern standards. In 1845 it was performed by five hundred singers to sol-fa syllables rather than the Latin verse. The result, according to a review in the Spectator, was that it was ‘found totally effectless … None present, we suspect, will ever want to hear it more.’ The next attempt, in 1879, after eighty rehearsals, was described in the Daily Telegraph as ‘about as interesting and valuable as a set of Chinese concentric balls’.

McCarthy has her own sense of which pieces deserve attention. Tallis’s Canon (a setting of ‘God grant with grace’), which in Harley’s biography is given three pages of analysis (which still doesn’t ransack all the possibilities), is completely ignored. The piece she cites most often is the votive antiphon Salve intemerata and the mass based on it, which is mentioned fifty times. It wasn’t particularly admired at the time, as far as we can tell, and it is certainly not the first piece by Tallis that performers leap to now, given its length and unvarying harmonic content. (I overheard a singer at the end of one performance saying that if he had to sing another note of D minor he would slit his wrists.) But it gives McCarthy, an academic first and foremost, the chance to make a useful point: ‘Salve intemerata is made up of intertwining melodies which imitate each other, but very rarely in a mechanical or slavish fashion. Each phrase of the text is expressed in a slightly different form by each voice, adjusted to fit the ebb and flow of the musical texture.’ Fair enough, even if performers – and contemporary audiences – might not feel the same way.

She devotes less space to Tallis’s largest masterpieces – Spem in alium, Gaude gloriosa and the Missa Puer natus – addressing them together in one chapter. The remarkably arcane tenor part of the Missa Puer natus is explained in the context of composers setting pre-existing melodies (in this case chant). McCarthy also discusses the idea that the Missa was written for the joint chapel choirs of Philip II of Spain and his new bride, Mary Tudor, who was expecting a child (she was mistaken about this, as it turned out). McCarthy is crisp: ‘The major flaw in this scenario is that the two choirs sang their joint service on 2 December, the first Sunday of Advent.’ The Missa was a piece of iconic Christmas music and to sing it so early in Advent would have been too great a breach of religious protocol.

The mythical origins of Spem in alium are even more romantic. McCarthy goes cautiously:

The investiture of the Prince of Wales involved both a formal state ceremony in Parliament and a religious service in chapel, but the ‘song of forty parts’ was not sung during either of those events. It was sung at the investiture banquet. By this point in English history, the most elaborate polyphony had migrated, more often than not, into the realm of worldly music-making and opulent private spaces. The Tudor architecture of Nonsuch, the (now destroyed) home of the first known copy of Spem in alium, is particularly evocative of this sort of performance. The Nonsuch banqueting house was a detached free-standing structure built on an octagonal foundation. The main palace also featured two massive octagonal towers at either end, each with a grand eight-sided room inside. One of the eight-sided towers [is shown] in a drawing made by the Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel on a visit to England in 1568, quite possibly the year Spem in alium was composed and first performed. Whether or not Tallis had those particular physical spaces in mind when he wrote a motet for eight equal choirs in circular motion and close interplay, his large-scale music is the product of a similar imagination.

She doesn’t speculate further.

Tallis’s early life and probable training in Kent (his first recorded position was at the Dover priory, where he may have been a chorister) meant he was well placed to absorb the new ideas in composition that were coming across the Channel, both before and after the Reformation. The traditional view that England went it alone artistically in those difficult years, and that Tallis was unassailably the product of English training, is challenged by what he actually wrote. As McCarthy points out, half the major manuscripts from the early Tudor period contain foreign works of some sort. She demonstrates the influence of Flemish masters such as Nicolas Gombert and Jacobus Clemens in motets as sophisticated as Tallis’s Suscipe quaeso, where ‘the many cadences are thickened and intensified by extra dissonances.’ There is also Flemish influence in the general character of the music: ‘maximum variation within a consistently quite thick musical texture’. That is to say, most of the voices are singing most of the time. Italian influence was also strong, partly due to the presence of Italian musicians at court and partly the craze for madrigals during Elizabeth’s reign. The parents of Orlando and Ferdinando Gibbons had clearly taken note – they went on to excel at madrigals – but it might come as a surprise to learn that Tallis himself contributed to the craze.

McCarthy’s interest in small details has other dividends. Language was a political tool in a society divided by questions of biblical interpretation, and the sung litany, as well as its musical accompaniment, came in for particular scrutiny. Radical reformers like George Joye railed against ‘matins mongers, idle evensong upheapers and Salve singers’. The 1563 Bishops’ Convocation came close to approving ‘a set of sweeping Calvinist-style reforms, one of which required “that the use of organs and curious singing be removed”.’ It was a close thing: 57 members of the clergy voted for the reforms; 58 against. McCarthy even finds evidence of two gospels ‘in the Saxon tongue’. Tallis survived it all. The comparison with Holbein, whose political agility and artistic range – from grand public portraits to miniature devotional images – allowed him to fashion the age, is a fair one. Tallis’s work, and his survival, attest to this. What it cost in human terms, we can only guess.

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