Steve C Smith and Peter Phillips
There is little in the history of English composition to rival the extent of Taverner's influence on his successors. The development of the 'In nomine' repertoire is the most conspicuous evidence of this, a quite unparalleled event. Originally in a spirit of wanting to flatter Taverner by copying him, composers of every generation up to that of Purcell, and including Purcell himself, tested their contrapuntal techniques by basing music on the 'In nomine' section of the Benedictus of Taverner's Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas. Less well established is that his compositional method, for example in setting chant or developing themes, continued to be used throughout the remainder of the 16th century. It was perhaps to be expected that there would be some carry-through from Taverner's later style in which, by simplifying his lines and turning more to imitative writing, he looked towards the future (as shown, for example, in Byrd's three Masses ). But his earlier more florid style was no less inspirational to his successors. To give one example, Robert White transferred Taverner's scoring and texture from the Credo of the Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas at 'Et incarnatus est' wholesale to the 'Sicut locutus est' section in his own six-voice Magnificat .
Arguably the most poignant example of Taverner's influence on his successors came from his Western Wind Mass. Perhaps he hoped that by choosing a secular tune on which to base a Mass setting (the first time such a thing had been done in English music) he would establish a series to go alongside the great European ones of L'homme armé or Mille regretz. Perhaps he only wanted to diversify the scope of traditional English composition by introducing a new approach. He succeeded in the former up to a point (Tye and Sheppard took up the challenge with their own Western Wind Masses ), though in both endeavours he was ultimately frustrated by the advent of the Reformation.
This recording, in including the Western Wind Mass and the Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, contains his most influential works: evidently admired in the 16th century and often the first to be mentioned in any 20th century discussion of his music. Both seem to come from the first part of his creative life, showing the late medieval florid style more or less unclipped. On the other hand Dum transisset Sabbatum and the Leroy Kyrie perfectly exemplify his later style: the voices are more equal, the textures more transparent and the melodic lines freer of embellishment. The element which most obviously unites all these pieces is Taverner's ear for sonority: in every case except the Leroy Kyrie he uses the high treble voice. His sense of vocal spacing, like the most perfectly realised perspective in Renaissance painting, unfailingly enthralls the listener.
It seems likely that the love lyric Westron wynde when wyll thow blow? was a popular one at the court of Henry VIII. A setting quite different from the tune embedded in the three polyphonic masses which carry this title has survived in a contemporary manuscript, though there is no such independent source for the model in question. What is sung here as the model has been extracted from the polyphony, where it is so clearly audible, and the English words added to it in recent times. It is just possible that Taverner himself wrote this melody since a number of secular songs by him date from his early years at Henry VIII's court.
Taverner's Western Wind Mass consists of 36 statements of the melody - nine in each of the four movements - and is scored for four voices: treble, mean, tenor and bass. The tune is quoted at times in all the voice-parts except the mean: 21 in the treble (where it is most audible), ten in the tenor and five in the bass (where it can most easily be overlooked - perhaps the most evident example is at the beginning of the Agnus Dei). Apart from being occasionally ornamented in the cadence it is almost always stated without alteration and is always present, one quotation running straight into the next. The Mass as a whole thus takes on the structure of a massive set of variations, each variation scored slightly differently from its immediate neighbours, each with different figurations and their counterpoints - Taverner came up with well over 30 of them, and they each add something to one's appreciation of the melody itself.
Since in pre-Reformation England the Kyrie was not considered to be part of the Mass Ordinary, it had to be set separately. Composers had access to an independent body of chant melodies which had grown up for this movement alone, Taverner in this case choosing the famous 'square' (a non-liturgical melody) for the Sunday Lady Mass, traditionally named 'Leroy'. This melody is here presented in the highest of the four voices taking part: mean, countertenor, tenor and bass.
The Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, perhaps the most elaborate of Taverner's three six-voice masses, is scored for treble, mean, two countertenors, tenor and bass. It is named after the plainsong antiphon to the first Psalm at Lauds and Second Vespers on Trinity Sunday. Compared with the Western Wind Mass, the pre-existing melody is used more strictly as a cantus firmus, occuring three times each in the Gloria, Credo and Sanctus and twice in the Agnus Dei. The chant is always broken down into its four component phrases, each stated as an entity, except at the famous 'In nomine' passage where, uniquely, it is given complete. Most unusually the chant is sung by the means throughout the mass, not by the tenors. However, unlike the Western Wind Mass, there are substantial passages where the chant is omitted. These are always scored for a reduced number of voices, giving the opportunity for some highly embellished vocal lines especially from the treble voice when in duet, for instance in the third Agnus Dei. Taverner used one or two other devices to hold these substantial movements together: each starts with the same musical motif; and each ends with a coda where the chant is stated in shorter note-lengths than before. This latter is particularly noticeable at the end of the Gloria where the shortening seems to generate quite exceptional energy.
From the opposite end of the gamut of Taverner's compositional style comes the responsory Dum transisset Sabbatum. Originally a respond to the third lesson at Matins on Easter Sunday, it is here sung with its liturgical repeats. If Gloria Tibi Trinitas seems in essence late medieval in its rhythmic life, the more purely melodic sweep of Dum transisset Sabbatum was to prove visionary. For the next hundred years English polyphony was to recall this calm, balanced music, and to remember Taverner as the greatest composer of his time.
© 1995 Peter Phillips
(1) These are held by Philip Brett, in the introduction to his edition of the Byrd Masses (Stainer and Bell), to be closely based on Taverner's Meane Mass.
(2) Recorded on CDGIM 030
(3) Recorded on CDGIM 027