Monday, 2 July 2012

In the name of Taverner

Here's a strange English tale. There was an old Gregorian plainchant melody, Gloria tibi Trinitas ('Glory to the Trinity').  This tune was used, somewhere around 1520, as the cantus firmus (i.e. the melodic basis) of a substantial mass setting by the great Tudor composer John Taverner (c.1490-1545), namely his Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. The chant pops up repeatedly throughout the mass, appearing in every movement. One of its appearances, however, is especially noteworthy. Please listen to part of the Benedictus - the exceptionally beautiful part beginning at 4.56 in this recording - where the mass's six-part texture shrinks to just four parts - the sopranos singing a deliciously florid line while the altos below it sing the plainchant melody in long notes. The passage sets the words "in nomine Domini". The particular beauty of this passage struck Taverner's contemporaries and arrangements of it began to be made, including for instruments, and this stand-alone extract became known as Taverner's In Nomine. Its melancholy, lyrical quality, especially when performed on viols (as it often was), helped spread the music's appeal yet further. 

More than that, Taverner's contemporaries began composing their own contrapuntal pieces, weaving their own descants around the old plainchant melody. These pieces were all given the name In Nomine. My favourite Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) seems to have been first out of the traps, writing two such works - In Nomine I and In Nomine II, both in four parts. Christopher Tye (c.1505-c.1572) went even further, composing over twenty In Nomines. Most are in five parts, though there is a four-part piece and a six-part one too. Whereas both of Tallis's takes kept the melancholy tinge of Taverner's original, Tye took the form into all manner of moods. His In Nomine XIV (subtitled Reporte) sticks close to the that original spirit while his In Nomine XX (subtitled Crye - seemingly reflecting the cries of street vendors) is positively frolicsome. In the In Nomine a 5, Farewell my good one forever the slight melancholy of the Taverner turns to deep melancholy. Other composers also took the form into contrasting moods, as with the pleasingly upbeat (and florid) In Nomine by Robert Parsons (c.1535-c.1572).

The intention seems clear. This was a case of composers trying to match or even outdo the beauty and skill of Taverner's original. It was a tribute to Taverner but also a show of that other composer's own compositional prowess. Tye's In Nomine XIII (Trust), for example, is audibly more complex than the original - as are many others. 

What is so remarkable is just how many English composers wrote In Nomines. All the greats of Tudor music wrote them, including those of later generations - including Tudor England's undisputed master William Byrd (c.1540-1623). Just listen to his 4-part In Nomine No.2 and 5-part In Nomine No.5 (the latter with some particular juicy dissonances - those false relations beloved of the composer) for music that more than rivals the original setting. John Bull (1562-1628) also wrote several examples, including this ingenious piece a 3 which brings the utmost fantasy to bear on the old chant, beginning in syncopated simplicity but growing ever more complex and brilliant. 

As the Tudors gave way to the Stuarts, the craze for writing In Nomines continued unabated. Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) wrote several. His In Nomine a 5 No.2 initially has something of the grave beauty of the original but begins to smile and dance as the pace quickens. 

Most remarkably of all, 150 years or so after John Taverner, along come the greatest of all English composers, Henry Purcell, and started writing his own In Nomines. He was, however, writing at the very end of the craze. With Purcell's passing so passed the In Nomine - at least for the time being. As you would expect Purcell's examples are among the richest and most beautiful. Please try his In Nomine a 7 for a piece that might well have blown old Taverner's socks off!

Intriguingly, composers of the last hundred years have started composing In Nomines again - and the form has left our shores and spread its wings. Here, for instance, is a lovely example from 2001 by the Austrian spectralist composer Georg Friedrich Haas, simply called In Nomine. And, rather unexpectedly, there's an In nomine à 3 by Brian Ferneyhough. Both are part of a specific new music project. In several of the pieces that came out of that project the references to the Taverner original/the old plainchant - always apparent in the music of the Tudor-and-Stuart-era composers - are very difficult to hear. Ours is clearly a very different age to theirs. See if you can spot them in Wolfram Schurig's In Nomine for vibraphone, piano and string trio or in In Nomine -- all'ongherese by the wonderful György Kurtág. It's good to know though that some great ideas never quite die. 

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