Consort Musicke Set For Viols by Christopher Tye
Recorded: Collegiale romane du Chateau de Cardona in May and July 1988.
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GOING back to the dispute between Henry VIII and the Papacy in order to determine the cause for the peculiarities of English music in the 16th century might seem surprising. But the events which led to the constitution of the Anglican Church in 1534 had decisive repercussions on the religious and social life of England. The suppression of the monasteries, besides obliging composers who had been attached to them to work for the king, for the court, for merchants or for the reformed church, brought with it a distribution of their wealth and revealed the musical knowledge and experience of clerks who had hitherto been confined. Now, this broadening of knowledge coincided precisely with a growing capitalism, which brought with it a middle-class which had the leisure to make use of the arts, and of music in particular, as a status symbol. It is true that a good example was set by the royal family and that the advent of the Tudors in 1485 opened up a golden age for English music. Henry VIII devoted a good deal of his time to music, and his daughters, however different they might be, showed a similar interest in this area : when she was still very young, Mary Tudor played the virginal with sufficient skill to be judged worthy of playing before the King of France, while the influence on the arts of Elizabeth I was to lead to her name being given to the "thirty finest years of English music" (1592-1622). Whatever the case, these were the elements, together with England's insularity and isolation from continental influences between the years 1530 and 1560, a consequence of the religious crisis, which was to determine the context in which a characteristic instrumental art was to develop giving birth to the most elaborate genre that western civilisation had ever practised, namely chamber music.
An expansion of instrumental music was certainly happening at this time across the whole of Europe, especially in Italy and in Spain: there was certainly a rapid development of earlier practices. The great contribution of the 16th century was music printing. This brought on a repertory which the church had not considered worthy of attention, the benefit of propagation in considerable quantity for the time and a relative guarantee of correct texts. And this increased distribution of instrumental music, well composed by famous and recognized masters, in circles which had not earlier had access to it, was to encourage the birth of a secular art whose beauty and nobility of tone rivalled that of sacred music. But there was one essential difference between English music and that written on the continent : in Italy, as in Spain, works which were not intended for a solo instrument were composed for outdoor ensembles, for courts or for churches; they were never intended to be played by a small group as a dialogue between a few partners who got together for the performance of the piece. That is why what we still today call chamber music can be said to have taken root in England.
It is in this perspective that we must place the consort of English viols in the 16th century and the first part of the 17th century. Already, in its formative years, chamber music occupied a place comparable to that it enjoyed during the classical period in Vienna two centuries later. The consort of viols irrisistibly reminds us of the string quartet or string quintet: it had the same homogeniety within the same family of instruments, the same division of the spectrum of sound between the different performers whose role is complementary, the same manner of making the parts dependent upon each other, while giving them some opportunity for individual intervention, the same reliance on the top part and the bass without the middle parts being secondary as such. But also, and this is the most important thing, it has the same beauty of ensembles sonority, the same complexity of setting, the same expressive intensity, the same tendency to practice a constantly noble art, which in its best moments takes on a heavenly character. We are still surprised today that a nascent genre could set its ideals at such a high artistic level and that it should find the technical means to realise them.
The consort of viols uses essentially two kinds of forms: those which derive from the dance and abstract pieces which spring from the composers imagination. The dances (allemande, courante, pavane, galliard, gigue), generally of a homophonic character, refer to popular themes, but they are stylized, that is to say they were not really intended to be danced. The abstract pieces are polyphonic and take the form of the In Nomine and of the fantasia or fancy, as defined by Thomas Morley in his book A plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke which was published in 1597 : "The chiefest kind of musicke which is made without a ditty is the fantasie that is when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure, and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it as shall seeme best in his own conceit".
The In Nomine differs essentially from the fantasia only in the fact that it had to be based on a cant us firmus which comes from the Benedictus of the mass Gloria Tibi Trinitas by John Tavener ; in this a piece for viols is substituted for the words at the beginnining of the passage: "In Nomine Domini". This essentially English genre (which was however not without influence on the continent, as we see in the works of Eustache du Caurroy), thus takes its name from a fortuitous circumstance. It was to develop through the course of the 16th century as an instrumental piece (consort of viols or keyboard music) hitherto freed of all liturgical character and was to continue its existence until the time of Purcell, at the end of the 17th century. Tallis, Parsons, Byrd, Whyte, Fer-rabosco, Gibbons, William Lawes composed In Nomine settings in greater or lesser numbers, but without doubt it was Christopher Tye who was responsible for its early development and the elaboration of the form, and it was he who has left us the greatest number of compositions in the genre.
Documents which would allow us to write a biography of Tye are neither very numerous, nor very precise. The year of his birth is generally given as 1500 and it is thought that he died in 1572 because a successor was named to follow him at Doddington, the parish where he was pastor, on 15th May 1573. A boy chorister by the name of Tye (but without any Christian name specified), was active at King's College, Cambridge, between 1508 and 1513. In 1536, Christo-phero Tye received the degree of "Bachelor of Music" at the same Kings College, whose records describe him as lay clerk between 1527 and 1535. But his name recurs in 1541 with the title of Magister Choristarum at Ely Cathedral, and he seems to have been awarded a doctorate in music at Cambridge in 1545. It was at that time that he appears to have been in contact with Richard Cox, a notorious member of the reformed church who was to become Bishop of Ely and who appointed Tye as deacon (July 1560) and later pastor (November of the same year), when the composer ceased his musical activities at the Cathedral of Ely. Tye then retired with his wife and children to Doddington-cum-Marche, where he ended his days about 12 years later.
So there remains a good deal of uncertainty about the life of Tye. In particular about the nature of his relationship with the Chapel Royal during the reign of Edward VI. Evidence of this relationship survives through the dedication of his work The Actes of Apostles (1553) in which he is described as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal; but this assertion is corroborated by none of the surviving documents of the Chapel; might this have been a purely honourary position ? We also do not know what influences the young composer encountered in his formative years, or who his teachers were. The long periods during which we have no information also prevent us from knowing whether Tye travelled and what constraints were laid upon 'him, notably at Ely during his mature years. We can only suggest some character traits and measure his involvement with Protestantism under the influence of Richard Cox, whose anti-papal activities and fanatacism were notorious. In his later days, the composer seems to have shown signs of a surly character, with a tendancy for caustic humour, if we are to believe the anecdote which tells of his playing the organ with "much musick but little delight to the ear", and replying to Queen Elizabeth, who sent a verger to reproach him with playing out of tune, that it was her ears which were out of tune.
The work of Christopher Tye, which was entirely made up of sacred if not liturgical music, shows some contrast between his ecclesiastical vocal music and his instrumental pieces. Nothing suggests that they both follow the same compositional processes. The clarity of his liturgical music, which applies the principles of Anglican Church and which is set in a syllabic style, excluding all complexity, so that each syllable should be clearly perceptible to the congregation, contrasts with the extreme elaboration of his instrumental pieces. This is an entirely different universe, in which the composer gave free rein to his imagination and to the contrapuntal science with which he had been familiar in his youth. We should not forget that, although he lived during the period of the establishment of the Anglican Church, one of whose representatives he became, Tye had been educated in the Catholic universe, unlike the composers of later generations.
Tye's surviving instrumental pieces number thirty-one: twenty-one In Nomine settings, four versions of Dun transisset, five pieces with the titles of motets and a strange contrapuntal tour de force entitled Sit fast. Tye thus left no dances or fantasias. The works which we have today are contained in four manuscripts preserved respectively in the British Library - this is the most important and oldest source dating from around 1578 - in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, in the Christ Church College Library, Oxford and in the Royal Collection in the British Library, none of them compiled by the author or even dating from his lifetime. These works were all published in a modern edition by Robert W. Weidner of Eastern Illinois University, who adopts an arrangement by genre, placing the In Nomine settings first, in order of increasing difficulty, assigning his own numbering to them. This ordering, which is based on didactic rather than musical logic, is not used here in this recording's presentation of the thirty-one pieces. Jordi Savall has chosen instead a sequence which takes account of the character of each work and of the harmony of their linking.
Most of the In Nomine pieces have subtitles connected with the Bible or with Christian morality. Although they had no liturgical function, these pieces maintain a religious character which suggests a tendency for edification which Pastor Tye must have used in his ministry. But what first strikes the listener is the correspondence between technical mastery and expressive power in these short pieces. Their density of form, the solidity of their texture, their complexity of rhythm and counterpoint and their diversity of thematic treatment produce music of sublime beauty and unexpected lyricism. The impression felt is not dissimilar to that created by the Fantaisies of Eustache du Caurroy or Art of Fugue of Bach. But while those composers of genius crowned with their monuments the progress of preceding centuries of western polyphony, Tye was in at the birth of a universe promising an extraordinary posterity. If we are to single out one piece from this magnificent set, I would choose 0 Lux, whose sidereal radiance shines through the centuries to join the Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo which opens Beethoven's Quartet in C sharp minor, opus 131.
Michel Bernstein (translated by Frank Dobbins)