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To hear The Tallis Scholars in Duke Chapel is to hear the stones, the carvings, the stained-glass windows. The music soared like a great bird without flapping its wings. Somehow the presence in the chapel seemed to be saying, "My children, live in peace."
The Tallis Scholars, named after the great English Renaissance composer, Thomas Tallis, was formed in 1973 by Peter Phillips, who in 1972-1975 was an organ scholar at St John's College, Oxford. Phillips invited members of chapel choirs from Oxford and Cambridge to form an amateur Renaissance vocal music ensemble, which turned professional after ten years of concert-giving. From the first performance in the Church of St. Mary Magdalen, Oxford on November 3, 1973, Phillips aimed to produce a distinctive sound, influenced by choirs he admired. Since winning a Gramophone Award in 1987, the Tallis Scholars have been recognized as one of the world's leading ensembles in Renaissance polyphony. The choir consists of ten voices singing a cappella. Phillips continues as director.
The program opened with the very popular anonymous French song of the fifteenth century, "L'homme armé" (The armed man). Many composers of the early Renaissance used this tune as their musical starting place in composing a mass. The famous low-country composer, Josquin des Prez, (c. 1450/55-1521) composed two masses using the "L'homme armé" theme. We heard the Kyrie (the opening movement of the Ordinary of the mass) from the second of these, Missa L'homme armé sexti toni (in the sixth tone).
Josquin's imitative style weaves a gorgeous tapestry of sonic wonder with harmonies built into the polyphonic structure. The purity and precision of The Tallis Scholars' voices filled Duke Chapel with warmth and wonder.
The next selection, Gloria (the second section of the Ordinary) from Missa Batalla by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), also makes use of material from a secular song. Guerrero is known for his ability to capture an astonishing variety of moods in his music, from ecstasy to despair, longing, joy, and devotional stillness; all illustrated beautifully in the Tallis Scholars' performance.
The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is now in his eighties and still actively composing. His style derives out of the overtones of bells and owes much to the Renaissance as well. For his "The Woman with the Alabaster Box" he sets Matthew 26:6-13 (an incident just before the Last Supper) to music in a homophonic and declamatory manner in the English of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible so that the words are easy to understand. It is the story of the woman who pours an expensive ointment on Jesus' head. The disciples object that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. The harmony become more and more intense with Jesus' words gently rebuking them: ". . . wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her." On the last words, the thick harmony opens up to a glorious major triad grounded by a deep note in the basses. It was like a granite monument raised up in music.
Next, we heard two funeral motets; "Quis dabit oculis" by Jean Mouton (c.1459-1552) and "Versa est in luctum" by Alonso Lobo (1555-1617). The first was sung by the men of the choir, along with an alto (as best I could tell from my perspective). Both were exquisitely sung with the paradoxical comfort of the expression of inconsolable grief.
The first half of the concert ended with the Credo (the third section of the Ordinary) from Guerrero's Missa Batalla. It radiates hope; the "Et incarnatus est" and the "Et exspecto resurrectionem" sections were especially notable for their awe-inspiring power.
The Spanish High Renaissance master, Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) is known for his mystical intensity, characterized by prepared dissonances, emotional communication and majestic polyphony. We heard the opening section, "Requiem aeternam," from his masterpiece, Missa pro defunctis. The ethereal singing brought out all that is in Victoria's awesome score.
This was followed the Sanctus (movement four of the Ordinary) from Guerrero's Missa L'homme armé. (Aha! There's that song again.) It is scored for four higher voices, giving it an intriguingly weightless feel. The "Hosanna" uses the original tune in triple meter sung in canon.
Twentieth century English composer John Tavener (1944-2013) wrote "Song for Athene" as a memorial to a family friend who died unexpectedly as a young woman. It was used in the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 and is embedded in the consciousness of millions who lived through that sad time. It is six verses sung homophonically embraced by Alleluias. The Tallis Scholars gave it the melodic and deep emotional expression of grief that nevertheless can sing Alleluia.
The gorgeous Agnus Dei (fifth movement of the Ordinary) from the Missa Papae Marcelli by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (C.1525-1594) filled the air with exquisite music that stirs the soul today as powerfully as it did almost 500 years ago.
The concert closed with a return to Victoria's Missa pro defunctis. Its closing cry of "Libera me," full of anger and fear, yet finally hopeful, remains deeply relevant in a world which has yet to come to grip with violence and the threat of armed conflict.
For an encore, Phillips chose Guerrero's setting of "Versa est in luctum," which we heard earlier in the setting by Lobo. It summarized the excellence in the art of singing we enjoyed so deeply this evening.
Now if I were writing music, or poetry, I would da capo back to the beginning and do the first paragraph again to end this review. I invite you to do so.