As the two eminent composers of their time, as one-time business partners, as leftover fellow Catholics in the Protestant England of Elizabeth, as student (Byrd) and teacher (Tallis), and as two of the greatest composers their country was ever to produce, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis are one of the most fascinating alliances in the history of English music. When the aged Tallis died in 1585, no other composer was more qualified to compose his elegy. It's most appropriate, too, that Byrd chose the consort song as the genre for the piece. A consort song is a piece for one singer (alto or countertenor) and instruments, usually viols. The instruments play a tirelessly worked-out and slow four-part counterpoint and the voice sings a simple line drawn from the contrapuntal fabric. It was a genre entirely indigenous to England; what better medium to honor the country's most eminent composer? Note that the melodies of consort songs are not designed to bring out the meaning of the texts, they are built on purely formal principles. What they draw from the poems are their meters and the poetic line generally corresponds with the musical phrase. But from song to song, the emotional quality is, in a good sense, more or less generic. It could be described as a diffuse mournfulness buoyed up on an aristocratic delitescence, or as a stately, jeweled melancholy. The non-specific emotional quality of the melodies is essentially a blank slate for Byrd that allows him to set different parts of the text to the same melody without any sense of disjuncture. So the pieces unfold without abrupt change or even abrupt contrast to mar their contrapuntal purity or the well-cut elegance of their design. Although Byrd did not much participate in the developments in secular vocal music of his time, the stylings of the Italian madrigal, Ye sacred muses is nevertheless made all the more moving by discreet touches of word-painting, such as the passing dissonance on the word "sorrow," or that on "crystal heavens above" the voice rises to the top of its tessitura. At the gorgeous image of the Earth choked "in mourning weeds," Byrd's utterance becomes unbearably tragic; everything until now has been but a premonition of the sequenced motif on "Tallis is dead," made into a cry of anguish and a terrible announcement. Tallis' name resounds with importance. Ye sacred muses is probably the most poignant of all Byrd's consort songs, the epitome of his most serious work in the genre. It seems a masterpiece now partly because there is virtually no subject more appropriate to their exquisitely solemn but collected mood. A royal statesman's funeral is no place for paroxysms of emotion. But also because of the continuing respect for and interest in Tallis' music (who hasn't gasped at his 40-voiced Spem in Allium?) allows listeners to share the sense of shock and mourning that the musical world of England must have felt at his passing.
Description by Donato Mancini
|2016||Resonus Classics||RES 10164|
|2013||EMI Classics / Warner Classics||5099943329|
|2013||EtCetera Records||ETC 1909|
|2007||Landor Records||LAN 280|
|2004||Signum Classics / Signum UK||SIGCD042|
|2000||EMI Music Distribution||61402|