Exploring Music: One of Music's Three T's--Western Wind Mass by Tye
The MHS Review 391 Vol. 11 No.13 1987
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England's Oxford University is among the oldest in the world; its University College dates from 1279. One hundred years later, after the founding of Balliol and Merton Colleges, its New College was established. Provision for the recruitment and training of the chapel choristers dates from that same year. Now, some 508 years later, the new seems a bit anachronistic--until you hear the freshness of its Choir.
With 16 choristers and 12 adult singers, the Choir sings Evensong (the Anglican evening prayer service) daily during University terms, gives numerous concerts in the United Kingdom and abroad, and frequently records the beautiful and complex works in its repertoire. Director Edward Higginbottom leads his remarkable ensemble with a sure hand, in this case through some of the rarest works in English music.
Often written about but seldom heard, Christopher Tye's Masses, anthems, psalms. motets, antiphons, and other works belong to the great tradition of English polyphony. Such music flourished from before the reign of Henry VIII and continued, despite political and religious strife, through Oliver Cromwell's establishment of the Commonwealth (when it was unwelcome) to the Restoration (when society again embraced music "as a mark of the good life and as an ornament to worship") to the present via Purcell, Handel, and all the rest. The tradition survives in part because of its rock-solid foundations built on the musical bedrock of England's "Three Ts": Tallis. Taverner, and Tye.
These giants, with the help of Byrd, Morley. Bull, Gibbons, and others, provided works of such unimpeachable greatness that they set for their nation standards which rivaled the best of Europe. Tye, particularly. commands our attention because of his astonishing range of styles and because he has been so little recorded.
The Western Wind Mass, probably based on a folk tune (and one of Tye's most famous works), is a masterpiece of virtuoso contrapuntal writing. Its strands are woven like those of a magnificent tapestry, each in perfect alignment and balanced in color with all the others. Although only four parts are sounding together, the effect is far richer. Its model seems to have been another 16th-century Mass of the same name by John Taverner, equally notable.
Accompanying Tye's Mass are rwo other Latin works: a motet, Omnes gentes (a joyous and vigorous five-part setting of Psalm 47), and an antiphon, Peccavimus cum patribus (a superbly dramatic seven-part prayer for the forgiveness of sins). Included as well are the English works My Trust, O Lord, in Thee is grounded(drawn from Psalm 31) and Christ rising again from the dead (two anthems for Easter), whose "reformed style" is simpler than that of the Latin works (but no more beautiful).
Hearing such music brings to mind Charles Bumey's grand sentence written in 1771: ''This seems to be the true stile for the church: it calls to memory nothing vulgar, light, or prophane; it disposes the mind to philanthropy, and divests it of its gross and sensual passions." This does not mean that music suited to liturgical use was dull. Quite the contrary: to free church music from the relentless beat patterns of mundane, worldly music was to create an altogether different flow for pitches and timbres. Its intent, from early chant through to the Renaissance (and up to the early baroque), was a spiritual effect, to send the worshiper's thoughts heavenward in contemplation of the divine.
Works such as Tye's succeed in this whether the listener is Catholic, Protestant, or something else. In performances as carefully prepared as these, Tye's music has another function, that of history brought back to life.