Tallis and Byrd were masters of the English renaissance. Thomas Tallis, born in 1505, served as both an organist and a composer, latterly at the Chapel Royal. William Byrd, born in 1540, was a pupil of Tallis, a member of the Chapel Royal choir and composer with the choir.
Each composed significant works for the English church: in Latin when the church looked to Rome and mostly in English after the English reformation. While both had Catholic sympathies, they enjoyed significant royal favour from different monarchs throughout their careers that helped to protect them during this turbulent period.
In around 1572 Queen Elizabeth granted Tallis and Byrd exclusive rights to print polyphonic vocal music in England. This led to the two composers publishing a joint collection entitled Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur when Tallis was 70 years old and Byrd was 35. Some of the composers’ best works were published in this volume including O nata lux. This is a luminous work, deceptively simple and using the chordal and less polyphonic musical language of Tallis’ later period most commonly associated with his English works such as If ye love me.
By contrast, Christ Rising Again, while in English, shares more in common with the highly polyphonic Latin motets of Tallis’ earlier output. The texts from Romans 6 and 1 Corinthians 15 are appointed in the prayer book of Edward VI for Easter Day and are thus very important for the repertoire of the Tudor church.
Tallis’ setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah is a tour de force. In fact it is two separate settings of verses 1-2 and verses 3-5, however these are usually performed together and share many similarities. The words of the Lamentations are drawn from a book of the Bible which tells the story of the nation of Israel huddled in Jerusalem under siege by the Babylonian army before being carried off into exile in Babylon. In the first verses, set here, the framework of the book is being built, describing a people now in exile in Babylon lamenting their fall. The tone of the Lamentations is dark throughout and talks of hunger, despair and tragedy. In Lamentations, Jeremiah the prophet asks the nation to turn back to God and seek his forgiveness for their sins and deliverance from their exile. Literarily, the book is an acrostic, with each verse starting on a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Tallis sets these letters of the alphabet as well as a number of extra-Biblical sentences: the announcements of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and a refrain “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God”. Often Tallis’ setting of the Lamentations is heard sung by choirs of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses – which requires the key to be transposed a minor third higher. On this disc we sing the Lamentations in their original key, and we believe the lower voicing adds to the depth and solemnity of the subject matter.
The remaining work by Tallis, Audivi vocem, is an unusual example of his music. The presence of plainchant in the work, the harmonies and his use of voices recalls an earlier era and indicates that this is a relatively early work of the composer. The text, recalling a parable of Jesus about wise virgins (bridesmaids) who filled their lamps with oil and did not waste it while waiting for the bridegroom and foolish virgins who did the opposite, is the text for All Saints Day and was set by many of Tallis’ contemporaries. This work is an example of a responsary, a piece of music placed after a scripture reading in a service and used to give the congregation time to reflect on the text of the reading.
The rest of this disc focuses on works from the significant output of Byrd.
It is generally believed that Byrd wrote his Latin works in relative secrecy early in his career, only publishing them after some time under the patronage and protection of Queen Elizabeth. The Mass for 3 voices is a remarkable work which requires only three singers and results in a full and vibrant polyphonic sound throughout. The ranges required of the singers necessitate very accomplished and versatile musicians but this is a setting of the Latin Mass that could have been used with minimal resources by the recusant Catholic church.
Sing joyfully (text from Psalm 81) is frequently performed and deserves its place in the popular canon. However the lesser known Make ye joy to God (Psalm 100) is also spectacular with, if anything, more exuberant and inviting rhythms.
About the singers
Nicholas Dinopoulos: A former boy chorister of St Patrick's Cathedral, Nick studied at the University of Melbourne and furthered his training at The Opera Studio, Melbourne. He maintains a busy performance schedule consisting of various concert, recital and operatic engagements, most notably as a core member of Songmakers Australia.
Jenny George: Jenny directs The Old Cathedral Voices. She is an alto with more than 20 years of choral experience with chamber ensembles including Voices New Zealand, Ensemble Gombert and the Consort of Melbourne. She has also appeared as a soloist in works such as Bach's St John Passion and Durufle's Requiem.
Megan Hurnard: Megan is an experienced mezzo-soprano specialising in oratorio, and a frequent soloist in her home country of New Zealand. With a long background in choral music, she is also a highly accomplished chorister, and continues as a core member of leading vocal ensembles including the Consort of Melbourne and the award winning Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir.
Julien Robinson: Currently studying medicine, Julien has featured as a baritone soloist in the St John’s Southgate Bach Cantata Series, and also on CDs recorded for ABC Classics and the Hush Collection. He sang with the Choir of Trinity College for 6 years, and has also performed with the Victorian Opera Chorus, MSO Chorus and Ensemble Gombert.
Daniel Thomson: Daniel graduated with Honours in vocal performance from Melbourne University. As well as being senior choral scholar at Newman College, he is in increasing demand as a soloist/chamber singer and currently performs with groups including the Consort of Melbourne, Ensemble Gombert, and Ensemble Systolica. Daniel is particularly interested in Baroque music and Lieder.
Matthew Thomson: Matthew is a Melbourne-based tenor and regular performer with the Consort of Melbourne, Ensemble Gombert, Canterbury Fellowship and the choir of St Peter’s Eastern Hill. He has completed an honours degree in singing at Melbourne University. Matthew's interest in singing ranges from early Baroque music, to German Lied, Oratorio and some Opera.
The Old Cathedral Voices
Formed in March 2009 from some of Melbourne’s finest choral soloists, The Old Cathedral Voices is based at St James' Old Cathedral - Melbourne's oldest church - and specialises in one-voice-per-part performance of English Church music from the renaissance to the present day.