A Composer for all Seasons

Created on Thursday 15th October 2020 by:
Kirsty Wright

In this guest post Jonathan Hanley, member of Stile Antico and former St Stephen's project assistant, reflects on his time at St Stephen's and the power of music to evoke the past.

One of the most memorable and moving musical experiences I can recall was hearing polyphony sung in St Stephen’s Hall, the site of St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster, for the first time since the Reformation. The music of Nicholas Ludford, a gentleman of the chapel royal and employed at St Stephen’s Chapel, sung by the choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, evoked the sense of the beauty, majesty, and ritual of the former chapel, long gone but reconstructed virtually by the wonderful St Stephen’s project. Whilst working on the project as an administrative assistant, I was enthusiastic about returning music to the site of the chapel in order to enhance our understanding of this newly recreated space. Sixteenth-century sounds and ceremony encountered the business and activity of the twenty-first in a mix which perfectly symbolised the living heart of the building which has been at the centre of our nation through most of its history. 

The return of live music to previously empty and silent spaces has been a poignant experience too in recent months, as concert halls, theatres, and churches adjust to the realities and restrictions of an ongoing pandemic. Music has the extraordinary ability to transport us to another time and place through the emotional connection with our own past, or by recreating another’s. As a history graduate and now a freelance singer, I have always been fascinated by the sense of breathing life into the notes and words of past composers and recreating their emotions in our own time.

The performance of music is therefore an invaluable historical source in its way; though the information on the music page tells us many things, it is in the performance of music that you catch a particular, and I think a most important, glimpse of the past. Ludford was one of the most important musicians in Westminster at the beginning of the sixteenth century. His music, written mostly for St Stephen’s Chapel for Henry VII and VIII, paints a picture of the English church on the eve of the Reformation. It is steeped in Catholic ceremony and ritual, whilst at the same time showcasing English particularities, such as the iconic English treble which soars distinctly above the lower voices.

Not a million miles away from Nicholas Ludford is perhaps England’s first superstar composer, Thomas Tallis. His music has long captivated me, since singing it from a young age as a treble. Tallis began composing in a style which resembles Ludford’s rich music for Catholic England, but with the upheavals of the sixteenth-century, he was forced to revise and refine this technique, despite his own private beliefs. As Thomas More has been famously dubbed ‘a man for all seasons’, so might we call Tallis ‘a composer for all seasons.’ Under Cranmer’s edicts that music was set simply and syllabically to ensure comprehension of the bible in English, Tallis’ music was restricted to short miniatures, though he creates these still with incredible beauty. With a return to Catholicism under Mary I, he was again allowed to flex his compositional muscles, but this time with a more mature style than his earlier works. And finally, with Elizabeth I’s great patronage of the arts, and her more lenient policy not to ‘make windows of men’s souls’, Tallis found a refined sound world, in which he was also able to write and indeed publish music with Latin texts.

Tallis’ later music, in particular, is usually nostalgic, deeply emotive, and often expresses a sense of deep loss or desolation. His setting of Miserere nostri domine, (Have mercy on us O Lord,) is a masterclass in polyphonic writing. It is Tallis’ final piece in the collection, Cantiones sacrae (1575), which he and his friend and colleague William Byrd put together, with Elizabeth’s patronage. Both composers contributed seventeen pieces, probably to celebrate the seventeenth year of Elizabeth’s reign, and indeed Tallis uses just seventeen notes in the whole piece in the bass part. The voices are often in canon with one another, with some voices using the same notes but with double the length, and others singing an inversion of another line. Despite all this technical prowess, the piece is tender and plangent, and perfectly put together, sounding like an extraordinary kaleidoscope of voices turning over one another. It can be without doubt that Tallis felt an incredible sense of loss for his Catholic faith, and this piece, as with so many others written during the latter part of his life, captures these emotions to give a glimpse of what life for a recusant or even ‘reformed’ Catholic may have been like.

This autumn, amongst the desolation many of us have felt without live music, green shoots are beginning to appear. I hope desperately that they continue to grow, though the signs suggest it will be longer still before we’re able to enjoy the riches of our world-class musical scene in this country. With many live-performances postponed, Stile Antico, a vocal ensemble of which I am a member, have put together a series of lecture-recitals to be broadcast online from 25th October. The 4 episodes will guide the watcher through the music and context of some of the best music and composers from the Renaissance, beginning with an episode on Thomas Tallis – ‘A Composer for all Seasons’. Filmed in high definition video, these newly-recorded, as-live performances will be accompanied by members of the group exploring some the techniques of the composers and their histories. You can view a trailer and book tickets at www.vimeo.com/ondemand/sundayswithstile

Jonathan Hanley