Tallis learns to compose

Since my last posts over a month ago I’m afraid I’ve rather neglected my blogging duties! I have very little excuse I’m afraid, except that I was doing rather a lot of writing up (literature reviews – oh rapture unrestrained…) and didn’t feel I had anything interesting to say… Well, I’m back now, it’s pouring with rain, and I have something to share which I, at least, am really excited about, because it shows a side to Thomas Tallis that we’re not at all used to seeing, and how a piece disowned by its composer could acquire a new status years and years later.

I’m re-editing Tallis’s Ave Dei Patris filia setting and I’ve finished the first stage – transcribing all the surviving sources and piecing them together in the right order. Unlike the other settings of this poem, Tallis’s only survives in late Elizabethan and Jacobean sources, which are all connected to three men: John Sadler, Edward Paston, and Sir John Petre. Another antiphon by Tallis, Ave rosa sine spinis, appears in exactly the same sources, but it can also be found in the Peterhouse partbooks which date from about 1540. Logically, then, you might think that Ave Dei was composed after 1540, but as soon as you listen to it, it’s clear that this can’t be right. That’s because Ave Dei just isn’t very good, at least not by the standards of Tallis’s work that we’re used to. There are several moments of parallel fifths, either obvious ones or very thinly veiled, as if he knew he shouldn’t do it but couldn’t think of an alternative. You also often feel that the treatment of dissonance is slightly uncomfortable, as if he were thinking ‘Now, I know I ought to put a suspension in here, but I’m not quite sure how – this’ll do…’. It’s not all bad, of course. Some of the melodic lines are a bit circular and repetitive, but given the expansive style I’m not sure we can use this as evidence of incompetence. And there are some moments of truly delicious harmony, and some imitative passages that would have made Taverner proud. It’s usual, however, to date Ave Dei to the very earliest stages of Tallis’s career, perhaps as the earliest piece he ever wrote that still survives, and having got to know it pretty well in the past few weeks I agree with this assessment. When he wrote this piece, he was finding his feet as a composer. It probably dates from the early 1520s at the latest and may even be from the late 1510s – he might have been as young as 15 or 16 at the time, perhaps having turned to composition as his voice changed and he needed a few more strings to his bow in order to continue his musical career. Perhaps the reason that it only survives in later copies – all of which date from after Tallis’s death – is that at the time it was composed it wasn’t considered good enough to share beyond Tallis’s immediate circle. How it eventually escaped that circle is unclear, but there is one possibility which I’ll explore in a bit.

Despite surviving in so many different sources, Ave Dei is still incomplete. We have three complete voices, a bass part in a manuscript owned by Sir John Petre and dated 1596 (Chelmsford MS D/DP Z6/1), and mean and contratenor parts in two manuscripts copied by John Sadler in the 1590s, known as Willmott and Braikenridge (Braikenridge is the one with the cockerel and the lobster, if any of you remember that – although I now have it on good authority that the lobster is in fact a crayfish. Apparently there’s a big difference!) The other sources contain only extracts – the two, three and four-voice sections – and they all belonged to Sir Edward Paston, a Catholic recusant living in Norfolk who had a vast collection of music manuscripts for voices, viols and lute. He and Petre seem to have employed the same scribe, who copied the Chelmsford manuscript and many of Paston’s lute books, including the one with Ave Dei in. So that scribe might have played quite a prominent role in the transmission of Tallis’s Ave Dei setting. Overall, we have complete bass, mean and contratenor parts, the vast majority of the treble (in one of Paston’s manuscripts, British Library Additional 34049), and a few short sections of tenor part. To complete the piece, I’ll need to reconstruct some passages of lost tenor, a prospect which I’ll admit fills me with trepidation, but I keep telling myself that it doesn’t have to be that good…

The question for me is how these three men – Sadler, Petre and Paston – got hold of copies of Ave Dei so that they could produce their own, when apparently it didn’t circulate in Tallis’s lifetime. Actually it could have been pretty simple. Although we don’t know where Tallis was when he composed Ave Dei, we do know that he was at Waltham Abbey, in Essex, when it was dissolved in 1540. Tallis lost his job and transferred to Canterbury Cathedral, and all the lands and assets from Waltham were given by the crown to Sir William Petre, whose son later became Sir John Petre. At the same time as the Petre family received the land from Waltham Abbey, they also mysteriously acquired a new organ, which David Price has suggested may have been that used by Tallis at the Abbey. (Patrons and Musicians of the English Renaissance, p. 62.) If this is true, then it’s more than possible that Sir William might have acquired the music books from Waltham Abbey at the same time as the organ. Tallis might have left behind the Abbey copy of Ave Dei rather than taking it to his new job in Canterbury – he was capable of better things now – which would explain the presence of Ave Dei in the Petre collection, and how it found its way into the library of Sir John Petre’s friend Sir Edward Paston. Since they shared a music scribe, it’s not surprising that the collections of these two Catholic recusants should share the same repertoire.

And what about John Sadler? He worked at Oundle and Fotheringhay, neither of which are close to Norwich and Chelmsford where Paston and Petre lived. But according to the stemmata created by Penelope Rapson of other pieces by Tallis, and by me of Fayrfax’s Ave Dei and Lauda vivi, his copies are very closely related not only to Paston’s and Petre’s but also to the Norwich source Tenbury 1464. It’s not clear at the moment what Sadler’s East Anglian connections were, but they certainly existed.

So – with the inevitable caveats – the story of Tallis’s Ave Dei is one of a young composer setting out, who decided to write a piece based on one by the most senior and respected composer of his time, and who later rejected it; of a family who acquired some music books by chance, and who later rediscovered the piece as its composer gained new status; of a scribe who moved from family to family and took his music with him. It’s everything I find fascinating about how music in Tudor England could travel around, gaining and losing status and new associations as it went.

Select Bibliography

Brett, Philip. ‘Edward Paston (1550-1630): A Norfolk Gentleman and his Musical Collection’ Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 4 (1964), 51-69. (Reprinted in Brett, William Byrd and his Contemporaries: Essays and a Monograph, ed. Joseph Kerman and Davitt Moroney.)

Mateer, David G. ‘John Sadler and Oxford, Bodleian Mss Mus E. 1-5’ Music and Letters 60 (1979), 281-295.

Price, David W. Patrons and Musicians of the English Renaissance (Cambridge: CUP, 1981).

Rapson, Penelope. ‘A technique for identifying textual errors and its application to the sources of music by Thomas Tallis’ (DPhil thesis: University of Oxford, 1982).

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