Music for the Tudors: Tallis, Sheppard & White

A CONVERSATION WITH MARKDAVIN OBENZA, JOSH HABERMAN, and GREG SKIDMORE

 

WHEN MARK AND JOSH ASKED ME TO WRITE PROGRAMME NOTES FOR THEIR UPCOMING CD LAST YEAR, I WAS HONOURED! These are two incredibly dedicated and exciting musicians and what they’ve achieved with the Byrd Ensemble is extraordinary. I met Mark in 2002 when we both attended a residential course run by the Tallis Scholars in England and I met Josh for the first time in the summer of 2014, though we were already connected through many parallel strands of our strikingly similar musical and academic interests.

 

They mentioned that this CD was to be a less academic and more personal offering to their audiences. This was to be a collection of music that meant a lot to them personally, throughout their lives as developing artists and admirers of this wonderful repertory. I thought it might be an interesting approach, therefore, not to only provide historical and analytic information about the music—which is what is most often contained in CD liner material—but to present a more personal and human discussion of what this music means and how it works. Because the music is well known and already widely recorded, it is hoped that the more academically curious reader might endeavor online or to a library to gain some of the basic factual information about the music and the composers presented here, and I’ve included some pointers to help along the way. What follows, therefore, is a wide-ranging conversation between the three of us about this music, its history, how we interpret it, what we find fascinating about it, and how our individual stories have shaped our relationship with it.

 

Greg: I thought we might start with a little bit of a history lesson. Europe in the 16th century was a fascinating but dangerous place. What can you tell me about the historical background for the music you’ve chosen for this disc?

 

Josh: Where to start! The political history from this period could hardly be more captivating if it had been written by J.R.R. Tolkien himself. You have Henry VIII who altered the religious course of England forever just so he could divorce his first wife. He marries six women in all, desperately trying to produce a male heir, and his only legitimate son from those six marriages (Edward VI) is crowned king at nine years old, only to die at fifteen. Then there are the dueling half-sisters: Mary, who presides over a five-year violent return to Roman Catholicism, is succeeded by Elizabeth, who has a long and prosperous reign that establishes the Church of England as a sustainable and stable institution. She represents the end of the Tudor story, and it’s certainly a long and tumultuous one.

 

Mark: Definitely tumultuous. It was such a turbulent time for the Church of England, flipping back and forth between various extreme forms of Catholicism and Protestantism. Because at this time the church was really the only major patron for professional musicians and composers, this uncertainty and these quick, violent changes in how the church worked had a big effect on the music we have from this period. Composers were expected to adjust their writing styles according to which group of religious fanatics was in power at which time! They all had ideas about what sort of music they’d like to hear and what it should sound like—how to treat the words, what sorts of singers should be involved, etc. Even just music that hearkened back to an earlier time was sometimes prized and sometimes vilified. Given these demands, I am always thoroughly impressed with the number of masterpieces we have from this era, written in such a wide variety of styles, particularly by the greats Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard and Robert White. It’s music by these composers that we’ve chosen for this disc.

CD Booket (Christmas Day)

CD Booklet (Music for the Tudors)

THE BYRD ENSEMBLE
Markdavin Obenza, director


1. John Sheppard (1515-1558) - Media vita

2. Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) - Videte miraculum

3. Thomas Tallis - Salvator mundi I

4. Robert White (1538-1574) - Christe qui lux IV

5. Thomas Tallis - In manus tuas

6. Thomas Tallis - Lamentations I

7. Anonymous - Save radix

8. Thomas Tallis - Gaude gloriosa

 

 

TOTAL TIME: 75 minutes

Josh: Despite all the upheaval, every monarch and religious regime needed music, even if the specifics of what was asked for varied quite a lot. These musicians and composers had to weather all this change and adapt. The quintessential example of the composer who did this most spectacularly is Thomas Tallis, who served under four Tudor monarchs (all of them except Henry VII). I would love to have been a fly on the wall when Tallis got the news that he had to go from writing pieces like his eleven-minute Ave rosa sine spinis to short syllabic works, setting the vernacular English language, such as the now much beloved If Ye Love Me. We recorded Ave rosa on our first disc, entitled ‘Our Lady’. While many people know If Ye Love Me very well indeed, the contrast between that piece and Tallis’ early works like Ave rosa is so marked that it is a wonder they come from the same musical mind. They are both absolutely magnificent pieces, but both so different, and this flexibility in style is Tallis’ hallmark.

 

Greg: I believe the way people thought about religion during that time was wrapped up in everything else. Religion wasn’t a part of your life, albeit a very important part, as it is for people today. Religion was everything. It was private life, it was public life, it was statecraft, it was art. It gave you a reason to live and it gave you a way to live. It makes sense to me that much of this English music is so powerful; these people were living through incredibly intense times.

 

Josh: Absolutely. And more specifically, I think people’s individual approaches to the Catholic vs. Protestant question were very deep and genuine. Tallis and his protegé William Byrd, England’s other genius composer from this period, are both reputed to have been ‘unreformed Roman Catholics’, despite living under years of Elizabethan rule and the Protestant Church of England, when many of their fellow Catholics were being impoverished, persecuted, and often murdered by the state for their beliefs. Many people believe that Byrd in particular experienced deep anguish about having to live out his Catholic faith underground. These people didn’t perceive the religious changes happening in their societies as mere administrative shuffles. These changes and the decisions and consequences that went with them went to the very core of their identity as religious believers—to the core of their identities as people. This was serious stuff.

 

Greg: Going back just a little bit, tell me about the Tudor Rose on the front cover of this CD and your inclusion of the anonymous work Salve radix among these later composers. Is this too a work related to the English Reformation?

 

Josh: Not quite. Salve radix comes from a manuscript called British Library Royal 11 E.xi. Catchy, I know. If Elizabeth’s reign was the culmination of the Tudor story, this manuscript, at least musically and symbolically, represents virtually its beginning. It was prepared in 1516 and presented as a New Year’s gift to Henry VIII and his queen, the Spanish Catherine of Aragon. About twenty years later, Henry would attempt to divorce this woman and the whole business would begin. At this early time, however, Henry was still in his vigorous youth. He was not the older, larger, imposing figure we know from the famous Holbein paintings. Henry was attempting to make the English court as spectacular and cosmopolitan as his rivals’ establishments in France and Spain. The manuscript in which we find Salve radix contains music written in the most famous and international style at the time, called the Franco-Flemish style, and the preparation of such a beautiful and expensive manuscript was as much about propaganda as it was about music.

 

Mark: Salve radix in particular is a very unusual piece, and symbolic of the Tudor Rose itself, the heraldic symbol of the Tudor dynasty. There are two wonderful moments in which the music follows itself down a harmonic rabbit hole and ends up in a different key. Musically, this ebb and flow out of pitch centers makes a little more sense when one considers the text, which likens the germination of a rose to the coming of the Tudor dynasty. The pervading sense of suspension is what smoothly takes us from key to key, very much like a slowly growing vine, budding eventually to produce a rose.

 

Josh: I have to believe that the harmonic adventurousness of this piece strongly ties into the imagery of the unbroken circle that surrounds the rose in the manuscript. I’m sure that such symbols of strength and continuity would have been central to establishing the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty. Could it be, and this is pure speculation, that this piece, being rather short and ending in a different key than it begins, was imagined as something that could be sung several times in a row, starting the next run in the key of the last ending, again becoming an unbroken symbol of dynasty and generational inheritance?

 

Greg: Wow! What an idea. I’ve not run across that before. That sounds fascinating.

 

Josh: This could take you full-circle and eventually bring you back to your original key. While this might be impractical to actually execute because of vocal ranges (though some judicious octave swapping might make it work), it is still an idea that could resonate in concept! In fact, I think concept and symbolism were more important to the artists and thinkers of the time than it is today.

 

Greg: Fantastic. What a rich collection of ideas and symbols and thoughts to draw inspiration from! The history of this time plays such an important role for all of us who love this music, but culturally speaking, is there anything else? Myself, having grown up in Canada but with family connections going back to the very earliest 17th-century American settlers, I find it interesting to think about the Tudor period as being the one that gave birth to colonialism—in a sense, this is the ‘last’ part of the story of England that is also ‘my story’—albeit a really old bit of it! What connection do you feel to these stories culturally? How much do these stories resonate for you in the culture you experience right here and now?

 

Mark: While I am of course an American, I can’t identify a particularly ‘American’ approach to English Renaissance polyphonic music in how I come to this music. Such a thing sounds a bit absurd, doesn’t it? I am lucky enough to have been born at a time when it was possible to grow up listening to English Renaissance music sung by English groups on CD and this is precisely what I did. These formative experiences, part of my ‘personal’ culture I suppose, the cultural experiences I created for and sought out myself, ultimately shaped my aesthetic for this music. So while I don’t live in England and never have, this music doesn’t feel foreign or distant to me. I’ve tried to develop intense and meaningful relationships with the music itself, not filtered through ideas of what it means to be English or what English history means to me as an individual.

 

Josh: There’s another link, and, perhaps fittingly, it’s a religious one. Most of the music on this CD, and most of the music we sing in general in the Byrd Ensemble, was written for religious performance, either liturgically (to be performed as part of an actual Christian service) or devotional. I actually feel very connected to it in this way through my participation in the unbroken Anglican/Episcopal musical tradition. Most of the other singers in the group have likewise spent a lot of time making music in churches, and especially Catholic or Episcopal churches, so it feels very natural to us to perform this music. I also grew up singing in a boychoir (the American Boychoir), and while it was not a religious institution it was directed by a prominent Episcopalian musician, James Litton. Our programs reflected this; we performed the first half of each concert in very Anglican-looking vestments, and sang traditional European sacred music. These experiences happened at a formative time for me; what you do when you’re a child usually ends up defining your ‘normal’, or at least the sorts of things you can meaningfully and authentically identify with.

 

Both Mark and I are also very much indebted to a dear mentor of ours, the late Peter Hallock. He studied at the College of St. Nicolas of the Royal School of Church Music in Canterbury in 1950, and was the only American enrolled there at the time. Peter introduced countertenor singing and the office of Compline to Seattle, a relatively secular city. Several of us ‘came of age’ in Hallock’s Compline Choir, where a great deal of English Renaissance music was sung. So despite the fact that Seattle is nearly 5,000 miles from London, I feel very connected to this tradition and this music. I feel completely at home at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, or any of the Oxford or Cambridge college chapels. The connection is primarily a musical one, but the roles played by the church music traditions we have grown up in and the important individuals who have mentored us in these traditions are also important. I guess, when you look at it closely, these are the things that actually define a cultural awareness, aren’t they? People can be born and live anywhere—culture is more complicated than that.

 

Greg: You’re absolutely right. As a Canadian living and working amongst the Westminster Abbeys and college chapels you mention, I’m a living witness to the idea that culture needn’t necessarily be dictated by the colour of your passport. You have created something in the Byrd Ensemble that shows this as well, which leads me on to another topic I wanted to discuss, that being your unique approaches to the music on this disc. First, how have you chosen this music in particular?

 

Josh: This is quite simply some of our very favorite music. In that sense this is perhaps the most personal disc we have released so far. Our other discs have explored academically interesting themes, and we collaborated with scholars who helped introduce us to music that was new to us. That was an exciting process of discovery, and there was definitely a thrill in figuring out a compelling interpretation of music that in some cases had never been heard by modern ears. However, regardless of how much exploration you might do, you never forget the music that is dearest to you, the music you seem to be able to get right inside of, and we wanted to commit that to disc.

 

Mark: Exactly. While breaking new ground is exciting, we wanted a chance to just record some of our favorites. These are pieces that we have known for years and experienced in various contexts, both singing them ourselves and hearing others sing them. They are pieces that made such an impression on us that they would stick in our heads for weeks or months, and definitely at least a few of them have been on repeat in my music player at various times! An unfortunate truth for those of us who love Early Music is that they aren’t making any more of it—the pieces that survive are all we get, and the most famous ones are popular for a reason. These are truly great pieces.

 

Greg: You’re not wrong! While these are absolute masterpieces, many of them are pretty well known, perhaps for that very reason. Is there anything in particular you wanted to accomplish with this recording in terms of finding a new approach or keeping things fresh, knowing there was a good chance some of your audience may have heard this music before?

 

Mark: There is something incredibly dramatic and exciting about this music and I believe it doesn’t matter whether a listener already knows it or not! This drama, this magic, is always there. The fact we’re returning to it having known it for so many years is evidence for this. When deciding specifically to record this music, however, we took a slightly different technical approach from the established norms of how one records these pieces. We wanted to use recording techniques to help bring out the drama in the counterpoint. We tried to capture the intimate sound of one-to-a-part singing and the full, epic sound of two-to-a-part singing with twelve singers and everything between. For example, we chose to place microphones closer than usual to the singers to record the character in each singer’s voice, and vary the placements of the microphones over the course of a piece to highlight its structure.

 

Josh: We make this music fresh by bringing ourselves and our aesthetic to it. Mark, as conductor, inspires us all to sing expressively. Each individual singer brings their vocal character and their own personal expressiveness to their individual line. Polyphony is really special in this way. All of the voice parts have equal weight and importance. Particularly for the one-to-a-part singing, you aren’t hearing a ‘choir’ but rather a group of soloists playing off each other, interacting with each other, being inspired by each other, totally in the moment. The magical results that come out of this interplay rely so much on the character, musicality, and expressiveness of the individual singers. So the music is fresh by virtue of being sung by a different group of singers than have ever recorded it before and we concentrate on that and bring it out.

 

Mark: Familiarity means a listener might come to the music with a set of expectations about how it should be performed. I consider this fact actually one of the best reasons for recording well known music! There is an opportunity here to play with these expectations, and maybe even to confound them.

 

Greg: I love that you relish the challenge of creating something new with music that is well known! In my experience, we need more of this. Especially with Renaissance polyphonic music, and perhaps because of the heavy cultural and academic baggage that comes with it—the very issues we started out by talking about—I often find performers, and even some audiences, relate to this music as merely a component part of a bigger, historical whole. We are encouraged so much to think of this music as ‘historical’ or ‘religious’ or in some other way ‘contextualised’ that I fear it sometimes goes too far and we lose sight of the music itself. Liturgical function, for instance, or indeed the bigger issue of original performance context, is a good example of something we as performers are meant to think about a lot. What is your approach to these ‘historically informed performance’ concerns?

 

Mark: To be honest I don’t consider liturgical function at all when deciding how to interpret the music. We decide on the feel based on the writing itself. As singers, we focus on bringing out the melodic nature of each line through legato singing, naturally singing louder as the notes get higher and quieter as the notes get lower. It sounds like a simple approach, but really it’s the best way to make obvious the structural detail of a composition. It reveals ideas about phrasing, momentum, feel, dynamics, speed, articulation and all that expressive good stuff. It may disturb some that I haven’t cited text as a consideration in interpretation. While there are some pieces that are deliberately connected to the text, I generally don’t find text to have a particularly strong connection with the music in this period. If I’m stumped on how to interpret a piece I’ll look at the text for clues, but it’s a small consideration. Often text just sounds like syllables to break up long lines of almost instrumental polyphonic counterpoint.

 

Josh: While I do find it interesting to contemplate how the music would have been used originally, ultimately I don’t think of that original function as being a significant factor in how to interpret it. This is especially true given that we, now, are using this music in a different way from how we assume it was originally used. We are aware of this and we make no apologies for it. The music is more than good enough, just on its own, to be introduced into modern and perhaps ‘foreign’ circumstances without losing any of its power. For example, I have to believe that pieces as long as John Sheppard’s Media Vita, which we’ve recorded on this disc, were used to some extent as ‘background music’, sung by the choir while the clergy were performing other parts of the service. It just seems hard for me to believe that the service would come to a full stop for twenty minutes while everyone paid complete attention to the music. But we, on this disc and in most modern performances of it, are using it as foreground music, and in our performances the music itself is the focus for those same twenty minutes. I believe this could very well lead to a different interpretation. Perhaps ours is more intense than what Sheppard would have heard. Perhaps it’s faster or slower or has more variation in it or a hundred other possible differences. I believe this is in fact very likely and that’s OK. If our singing brings satisfaction and meaning to our audiences in a different way than it might for Sheppard’s original audience, I’m not worried about that. We won’t ever have the chance to sing to Sheppard’s original audience and our audiences deserve to hear this wonderful music. They demand a present, intense, meaningful, and emotionally relevant rendition of it—not a trip in a time machine.

 

Greg: I agree completely. I think we need first ask ourselves what the benefit of a performance that seeks complete fidelity to the past would be. Are we convinced that we would like what we heard if we entered a cathedral 450 years ago and heard some singing? As you say, we also just don’t have that option and it seems a strange thing to put effort into. However, can we approach learning about the people behind the music as individuals in a different way? Can we gain a psychological insight, perhaps, as opposed to a factual historical one, and can that aid us? Tallis and Sheppard definitely knew one another, for instance, being employed in the same institutions. Robert White, on the other hand, may never have come across the other men, as he was slightly younger and never spent time employed at the Chapel Royal, the private musical establishment of the monarch. Do these biographical details allow you to relate more viscerally to the music?

 

Mark: Unfortunately for me, the sorts of details of the ‘real person’ behind the music that I want aren’t often contained in history books. These are emotional details, artistic details, as you say, psychological details. It’s hard not to feel closer to the composers themselves in some way, just simply by performing and recording their music. Each composer has a fairly unique compositional voice and I like to imagine what kind of people they are based on that. Sheppard wrote very sonorous and consonant music, though I sometimes wonder if he was a happy person, given how plangent and yearning—almost resigned—the end result often is. Even though Tallis had to change his writing style several times, he always wrote dramatic music while still maintaining his spicy harmonic signature throughout. Was he an emotional person? Hard to deal with? Or was he calmly calculating, taking everything in his stride? It is fun to speculate sometimes. At the end of the day, I confess that these biographical details do not have a huge effect on my interpretation of the music, nor do I really think they should. I think the interpretative decisions I take should reflect how I as an individual relate to the music itself.

 

Josh: I sometimes find thinking about biographical details to be a satisfying way to feel more connected to the music. The best example of this for me is knowing about William Byrd’s repressed Catholicism. This knowledge can actually heighten the emotional experience of delivering his intense motets on themes such as persecution or oppression, such as Ad dominum cum tribularer or Ne irascaris, both of which we recorded on our disc ‘In the Company of William Byrd’. Knowing, for instance, that Europe was experiencing a pretty destructive plague at the end of Sheppard’s life, and that he may have himself died from it, certainly affects how I would sing the words ‘Media vita in morte sumus’ (which translate as ‘In the midst of life we are in death’). How can it not? However, I don’t generally find biographical details to be significant in actually interpreting the music. I generally feel that this music stands really well on its own. That’s part of the beauty of Early Music to me. It was written at a time before composers felt the need to clutter their scores with highly specific dynamic and expressive markings. The notes give the music shape, and the interpretation follows from that.

 

Greg: Thank you both for being so candid and giving me access to these sorts of personal and intimate ideas. I believe knowing about the people making the music is just as valuable as knowing about the music itself. You both have strong convictions which come across powerfully in the music you create and it has been a pleasure exploring them with you. It is my hope that our readers will listen to this disc with a greater understanding of what they’re hearing and the decisions that have gone into its creation.