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The King's Singers first learned their Byrd and Tallis in much the same way that Elizabethan singers had: by singing in the daily choral services of the famous choir of King's College, Cambridge. The original six were all undergraduate choral scholars at that College, from which the King's Singers also take their name. (And two of the present members were boy trebles there). The choir at King's, by statute of its founder, Henry VI, employed exactly the same number of boys and men in Tallis's and Byrd's day that it has now: sixteen boys and fourteen men. But that was then an unusually luxurious establishment (and, besides, they may not all have sung at the same time). The numbers of singers on this recording may therefore be much more typical of the composers' original performance expectations, and the lack of boy voices would reflect the circumstance of many liturgical occasions of Tudor times.
And tumultuous times they were. The political situation under which Tallis and Byrd made their careers has much in common with the systems from which much of Eastern Europe has begun to emerge in the 1990s. For what we call the Reformation had, to many in England, felt more like what we now call a Revolution. Much that had been the very backbone of society and art was overthrown; what had long been associated with the highest aspiration was now proscribed; an international culture, encouraged by the Church, was purposely replaced by an insular one.
As in any authoritarian regime, different people found different ways to survive, or prosper, under it. Tallis and Byrd represent two of those ways.
Thomas Tallis seems to have led the life of quiet outward conformity to whatever ideas and practices held sway. He was organist of the Benedictine Priory of Dover in his twenties and had been promoted to the choir of Waltham Abbey at the time of Henry VIII's confiscation of the monasteries. Tallis thus labored in the thick of the old liturgy. He then took up a similar job at Canterbury Cathedral (where the liturgical music had not yet been altered), to be named a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal-a highly coveted musical post-in 1543. Since he would remain at Court for the rest of his life, he saw the accession of principled Protestantism with Edward VI (1547), the restoration of Catholicism under Mary (1553), and the strategic back and-forths leading to the compromises of the Elizabethan Settlement (1558), whereby Queen and Parliament devised and imposed a new church establishment, with a liturgy and discipline that were to prevail until Cromwell's Protectorate (1653).
How Tallis felt about all this we know little. How he acted is marked by the notable variety of styles that he explored and cultivated during his long career. We have the early Latin polyphony that he wrote for the old, ornate Tudor liturgy; we have his first attempts at Protestant music in English, employing the one-note-to-a-syllable ideal that reformers enjoined; there are the efforts for the Roman Rite as restored under Mary; and there are the many styles he employed under Elizabeth: more or less elaborate Latin music for court or private use, and soberer music in English for the new rites.
Whether the younger William Byrd's Catholicism was more deeply ingrained than Tallis's, or whether some personality trait made him more inclined to defiance, Byrd (also a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal) managed to survive a much more dangerous game than Tallis ever played. For, in an atmosphere in which known Catholics were often persecuted horribly, replete with close observation and the most exquisite torture, Byrd managed to be known as a "recusant" (one who refused to conform to the new religion) without ever being deprived of life or living. He even wrote music for the old rites and had the effrontery (or cunning) to dedicate their publication to the Queen who was otherwise drawing and quartering people who championed the old ways.
Why did Elizabeth make an exception of Byrd, who merely got a more or less severe fine from time to time? There have been many scholarly investigations and hypotheses, but the most likely explanation seems to be simply that his gifts as a composer-unsurpassed in all of Europe-seem to have remitted his sins against the Crown.
In fact, when Tallis and Byrd petitioned the Queen for more income, she gave them the exclusive right to publish music in her realm. (Elizabeth was very creative when it came to providing her favorites with valuable gifts that cost her nothing.) No one else in England could legally publish so much as a lined sheet of music paper without a license from the two. Tallis and Byrd were thus music-publishing pioneers in England.
But whatever their usefulness in the study of Tudor social history, or in the history of music-publishing, the true importance of Tallis and Byrd is shown by the contents of this recording: stylistic variety, musical integrity, and unfailing sensitivity to the setting of Latin or English words. The King's Singers appreciate these qualities and beautifully convey them to us, the listeners.
- Roger Evans
The King's Singers' most recent recordings on the BMG/RCA labels testify to their stylistic versatility. There is the recent collection of chansons by the sixteenth-century Josquin Desprez, the quintessentially Edwardian gems of Gilbert and Sullivan in "Here's a Howdy Do," and a chart-topping selection of the world's best-known love songs from Phil Collins to Franz Schubert in "Chansons d'amour."
The King's Singers have long been considered the embodiment of the best of British exports since their early days as students at Cambridge University, in the 1960s. Some of the faces have changed over the years, but the group's ideals remain the same: to present to audiences throughout the world impeccable six-part harmony, employing what has been described by The Washington Post as "the ultimate musical instrument, the human voice, at an advanced stage of development in the art of ensemble singing."