The Tallis Scholars

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For just one night in April the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made it possible to return to Shakespeare’s time by the medium of sixteenth-century sacred music. As part of a Symphony Center Presents program at the Fourth Presbyterian Church, the English choral group The Tallis Scholars, under the direction of its founder, Peter Philips, performed seven works written in Tudor England. Two of these works are by composers whose careers ended before Shakespeare was born, Richard Davy (1465-1538) and John Taverner (1490-1545). All allow us to hear the music of worship in a society whose order was almost universally perceived to be divinely ordained.

There were ten singers in all though for the longest work, which dominated the first part of the program, the Western Wind Mass by John Taverner, two of the singers left the group though not before one had sung solo the secular song on which the mass is based, “Westron wynde when wyll thow blow?” A scholarly account of English music for voice of the fifteenth century describes what The Tallis Scholars offered us: “in long and elaborate compositions such as settings of the Mass, the words may be set in a very florid and free manner (sometimes the singers will vocalize on one syllable for minutes on end.”[1] Taverner’s setting of major parts of the Latin mass reminds us that Shakespeare’s world was still religiously unsettled following Henry VIII’s break with Rome. The April 5 program began and ended with motets by William Byrd (1540-1623), who managed to enjoy great success in the Court of Queen Elizabeth and also to remain Catholic. There is a tradition that Shakespeare was Catholic as well, based in part upon a seventeenth-century report that the poet “died a papist.”[2]

In all of the works The Tallis Scholars performed, voices alone, without instrumental accompaniment, supplied the music. Multiple lines, long and melodious, combined and diverged seamlessly drawing the listener’s attention now one way, now another and sometimes to both parts together. The two sopranos, Emily Atkinson, an American singer, and Amy Haworth, both of whom have appeared with various early music and baroque ensembles, were especially pleasing for the purity of their voices. Dr. John Milsom, a professor of music at Liverpool Hope University describes the developing sound of English choral music after the mid-fifteenth century in this way: “Melodic lines became longer, more ornate than before, and increasingly virtuosic. They developed into flights of extravagant fantasy in which even a single word might blossom into flourishes and roulades of astonishing length.”[3] This aptly describes the ravishing sound the audience heard in the imposing neo-Gothic setting of Fourth Presbyterian two weeks ago.

In the second part of the program, Peter Phillips chose to twice pair settings by different composers of the same text: settings of Salve Regina by Davy and Byrd and settings of parts of the first chapter Jeremiah’s Lamentations, Alpha and Beth by Thomas Tallis (1506-1585) and Daleth and Lamed by Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder (1543-1588), an Italian active in Elizabeth’s court. One wonders if the first audience of Henry IV, Part Two (ca. 1598) might have thought of such music when the king tells his attendants, “Let there be no noise made, my gentle friends/ Unless some dull and favorable hand/ Will whisper music to my weary spirit” (4.5.1-3). At the scene’s end we learn that the room in which the king rests is called Jerusalem; the sound of The Tallis Scholars singing that name is a pleasing memory to associate with this line.

Scholars concur that “singing was an integral part of English life” in Shakespeare’s time.[4] In particular, the kind of contrapuntal or part-song music The Tallis Scholars sang was familiar to those who attended his plays. Part song books were published so that “several persons could sing or play from one book”; “to sing your part sure, and at the first sight,” wrote Henry Peacham in The Compleat Gentleman, published in 1622 was the mark of an educated person.[5]

As David Bevington noted in his review of The Tallis Scholars, Shakespeare’s plays, especially the comedies, are full of vocal music, songs we love so well, as those from Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Peter Seng gives seventy songs drawn from twenty-one plays including Ophelia’s songs in Hamlet when she has gone mad and Desdemona’s “The poore Soule sat singing, by a Sicamour Tree. / Sing all a green Willough” in Othello.[6] Music appears in other ways besides the songs. Walter De La Mare writes, “[Shakespeare] lived in the supreme heyday of English music, a music so much beloved by him and so frequently in his remembrance that there are upwards of four hundred references to it in his plays.”[7]

For one evening we were reminded of that “heyday of English music” in which Shakespeare wrote. Though not so familiar as Shakespeare’s plays, this music is not forgotten. Within the same week I heard The Tallis Scholars, I heard a performance at North Park University of the Vettern College Choir of Jönköping, Sweden, under the direction of Ove Gotting, which included on its program the motet “Let thy merciful ears, O Lord” by the English composer Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623).

The Tallis Scholars performance was so well received, the group re­turned to do an encore, William Byrd’s musical elegy to his teacher, “Ye Sacred Muses.” This work concludes with the line “Tallis is dead, and Music dies.” Thanks to The Tallis Scholars, we can appreciate the depth of Byrd’s sentiment by hearing superbly performed the music that gave rise to it.

[1] John Stevens, Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court (London: Methuen, 1961), 37. [2] Samuel Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives, New Edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 79. [3] John Milsom, “Commentary” accompanying A Tudor Collection: The Tallis Scholars, a four CD recording by Gimell Records Limited, 1995. [4] Dorothy E. Mason, Music in Elizabethan England (Charlottesville, VA: Published for the Folger Shakespeare Library by University Press of Virginia, 1969), 2. [5] Ibid., 8, 4. [6] Peter Seng, The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967). [7] Walter De La Mare, “Introduction,” The Shakespeare Songs, ed. Tucker Brooke (New York: W. Morrow, 1929), xxiv.

Joseph Alulis is a professor of politics and govern­ment at North Park University, Chicago. He earned his PhD in political science from the University of Chicago with a dissertation on Alexis de Tocqueville. He has published a number of articles on Shakespeare as a political thinker, most recently, “The Very Heart of Loss” (2012) on Antony and Cleopatra, and is co-editor of a collection of critical essays entitled Shakespeare’s Political Pageant (1996). He is also an instructor in University of Chicago’s Graham School, Continuing Liberal and Profes­sional Studies.