One of the “greats” of high Renaissance music, English composer Thomas Tallis is remembered primarily for his sacred vocal music. Like his student William Byrd, Tallis spent much of his life as a Catholic musician practicing both his faith and art in a Protestant country. Court musician for the English monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, Tallis had to cope with changing regimes and state attitude toward religion.
Perhaps most famous among Catholic choirs today for his simple yet stunning motet “If Ye Love Me,” Tallis’ more complex work also deserves to be better known. Among his many liturgical compositions is a breathtaking setting of the Pentecost responsory Loquebantur variis linguis. During this Pentecost, I suggest you take a few minutes to listen to it—especially if it is your first exposure to Tallis’ voice.
The language of beauty continues to preach the truth of Catholicism to all nations, even when they don’t understand the Faith; because of that, we ought to see composers like Tallis as contributing to the Church’s continued charism of evangelism which began on the morning of Pentecost so many centuries ago. The future Pope Benedict XVI underlined this in The Ratzinger Report when he said, “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”
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The text of Loquebantur variis linguis is based on Acts 2:4, where St. Luke describes the Apostles spirit-filled preaching on the morning of Pentecost. Slightly adapted, it forms the Responsory after the 2nd lesson at Matins for the feast. Here is the text:
The Apostles spoke in many languages of the great works of God,
as the Holy Spirit gave them the gift of speech, alleluia.
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak.
Tallis’ seven-part setting opens with the incipit or first phrase of the Gregorian chant music of the responsory. In doing this, Tallis is following a common Renaissance custom of making some reference to the traditional chant when composing new music for a liturgical text already set to music. This beautiful practice rooted the new music in liturgical and artistic continuity, giving reverence and precedence to the tradition while simultaneously innovating with it.
After the incipit, each voice enters with the same musical phrase or melody, imitating each other, building a rich polyphonic texture. In the performance I have linked above, the score scrolls past with the music so this is easy to see. In this particular piece, Tallis draws on the chant melody throughout: in the score you can see that the “Quintus” part (or Renaissance name for “Tenor II,” abbreviated to “Q.”) is regularly singing whole notes while the other voices move around it. This line is actually reproducing phrases of the chant melody, which in this score is marked by brackets above the notes; the notes included in the brackets are excerpts from the chant melody.
Another intriguing feature of English music from this time—and Tallis is no exception—is the use of what are known as “false relations,” a special type of dissonance. A false relation occurs when two different parts sing the same note in passing, but one is sharp and the other natural. While I won’t get into the theory behind this and why Renaissance composers did this, it is worth pointing out because it occurs several times in this Tallis piece and gives it what I like to call a “delicious crunch.” For example, in measure 11 (0:46 in the video), the alto sings an F sharp while the bass sings an F natural. Once the alleluias start in measure 26, another delightful false relation occurs when an F sharp in the bass clashes with an F natural in the soprano.
As the singers reach the words “the great wonders of God,” the music of each part makes leaps of a fourth or fifth followed by descending notes, as if the magnalia or “wonders” are surging up and cascading down upon us. At the verse and Gloria, the plain-chant reappears in its purity before returning to the refrain “the great works of God” and then the “Alleluias” with the joy of their little syncopations in quick dotted notes.
If you find this seven-voiced beauty of Tallis’ stunning, I recommend giving his Lamentations a listen as well, which shows Tallis composing in a mournful rather than ecstatic mood. Perhaps his most ambitious piece is the rightly infamous Spem in alium, a 40-part motet for eight choirs!
When we meditate this season on the gift that the Apostles received of preaching and being understood by the diverse crowds in Jerusalem, we should also meditate on how this gift is continued in other forms in the Church. The incredible artistic heritage of Catholicism is a witness to this continued gift of “tongues.” The fact that the beauty of sacred art and music has always been a catalyst for conversions should remind us that the charism of beauty is not to be underestimated.
Indeed, as Pope Benedict also noted in The Ratzinger Report:
better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history.
Thomas Tallis’ Pentecost masterpiece serves as a stunning gateway to the elation in grace which began on Pentecost morning, continued in the arts.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles explaining great works of music “in a nutshell.”