Pentecost with Tallis

Posted on: 30 May 2020, by :

For Pentecost, when the Church remembers how the followers of Jesus Christ first received the Holy Spirit, some of the best music is by Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), the most admired English composer of the sixteenth century. He managed to pursue his long career as an organist, singer, composer and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal through dangerous times, apparently with contentment: his epitaph includes the lines As he did live, so also did he die, / In mild and quiet sort (O! Happy man!). Tallis has the unique distinction, while remaining a Catholic himself, of having served four Tudor monarchs who were wont to change the rules of religion and execute those who opposed them: Henry VIII, who in the 1530s defied the Pope and made himself the head of the English Church; Edward VI, whose reign (1547-53) imposed the Anglican Church as a strict form of Protestantism; Mary I (‘Bloody Mary’), who in 1553-8 reinstated Roman Catholicism in England by force; and Elizabeth I, who restored the Anglican Church but proved — fortunately for Tallis, William Byrd and many others — to be far more tolerant of personal choice in religious devotion than her brother Edward and sister Mary had been. These three Pentecost pieces alone reflect some of those great upheavals.

Tallis, If ye love me, sung by New York Polyphony in a recording session of January 2013 at Länna kyrka in Bergshamra, Sweden.

If ye love me quotes the words of Jesus to his disciples when, on the night that he was betrayed, he promised the coming of the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-17). Known from a manuscript of 1547-8, it is one of the earliest anthems with English words for the new Reformed church during the reign of Edward VI, composed even before Anglican liturgy was officially prescribed with the publication in 1549 of The Book of Common Prayer. It adheres to the expectations of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and other reformers for straightforward and lucid word-setting without the complexity and richness that was associated with Roman-Catholic church music.

If ye love me keep my commandments,
and I will pray the Father,
and he shall give you another comforter,
that he may ’bide with you forever,
e’en the spirit of truth.

Tallis, Loquebantur variis linguis Apostoli, performed by the Taverner Consort (CD recording, 2003).

In utter contrast, Tallis’s Latin motet Loquebantur variis linguis Apostoli, a text that amplifies the account of Pentecost in Acts 2:4, is made beautiful by its richness and complexity in seven vocal parts and four passages of alleluias. Being a responsory for First Vespers at Pentecost based on plainchant, it belongs to the Roman-Catholic tradition and must therefore date either from the reign of Mary I (1553-58) or from the 1540s — the time after Henry VIII had broken with Rome but while liturgical and musical practice remained largely unaltered.

The Apostles spoke in different languages 
- Alleluia! - of the greatness of God. 
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak of the greatness of God. 
Glory be to the Father and to the Son, 
and to the Holy Spirit.

The superb Pentecost anthem O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit into our hearts probably dates from the early part of the reign of Elizabeth I. Its text was drawn from Lidley’s Prayers, published in 1566.

O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit into our hearts 
and lighten our understanding,
that we may dwell in the fear of thy Name 
all the days of our life,
that we may know thee, the only true God, 
and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.

It is performed in this video of January 2017 by Ensemble Polyharmonique at the church of St Dionysius, Nordwalde, Germany. For another fine performance (sung by Almire, directed by David Skinner, in a CD recording of 2017), go here.