The Kennedy Center

Sacris Solemnis

About the Work

John Sheppard Composer: John Sheppard
© James Potter

Though working over four hundred years before Pärt, a similar concern with the interaction of melody with harmony can be found in the music of English composer John Sheppard. In Sacris solemniis he sets a hymn of St Thomas Aquinas for the feast of Corpus Christi, which celebrates Christ's coming in the form of the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This allows him to use one of his favourite techniques: constructing an elaborate network of polyphonic voices around a pre-existing chant melody, sounded in long notes. The piece alternates verses of the hymn, sung unadorned, with these passages of rich, spacious polyphony built on the same tune. The chant is in the uppermost voice, though Sheppard treats it flexibly, dividing it into two and fragmenting the tune into small units. This renders all the more effective those moments where the voices come together for emphasis in verse 4, at the words 'dicens accipite' - where Christ instructs his disciples to receive the cup of his blood.

In the England of 1554, Christmas was an occasion of special celebration. Queen Mary had recently married Philip of Spain, in a union designed to strengthen England's newly-restored bond to Roman Catholicism after the Protestant dalliances of her brother's short reign. In addition, Mary seemed to most observers to be pregnant. Accordingly, there is a sense of jubilance in Thomas Tallis's grand, seven-voice mass, which was likely first performed at this time. It is based on the plainsong 'Puer natus est nobis' - 'A boy is born to us, and a son is given to us whose government shall be upon his shoulders'. Even though the text of the chant is not used, the allusion encoded into the DNA of the music would have been picked up by those who heard it. It was an expression of hope, that the throne of Catholic England might be granted the security of a male heir.

The unusual original scoring of the work - seven voices at low pitch - can probably be attributed to the presence of Philip's Capilla Flamenca, or 'Flemish Chapel Choir', who would have accompanied their King to England. It is conceivable that the mass was envisaged for joint performance by the two royal choirs together. Philip's choir also contained composers of considerable repute, including Philippe de Monte. It's not inconceivable that Tallis saw an occasion to demonstrate the virtues of English music to his continental rival.

The English composer rose to the challenge, demonstrating virtuosic skill in the assembly of the mass. The plainchant is slowed down, and runs in long notes in the tenor voice. It's a technique we have heard in John Sheppard's music - though by the 1550s, the religious upheavals of the previous decades had led to the practice falling out of favour. The composer juxtaposes this archaic technique with more modern features which were associated with 'continental' composition, such as close imitation between the other voices. This allows him to maintain musical interest whilst the chant is deployed in such long notes (in the Agnus Dei, one such note sounds for a nearly unbroken stretch of thirty-one bars!). An unusual, even experimental work, the mass must surely have impressed those who heard it, in its skilful composition and fervour.