John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea

John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea
The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips
Gimell Records CDGIM046. 62’07

John Taverner:  Missa Corona spinea, Dum transisset Sabbatum I and II

It is very tempting, and indeed, very enjoyable, to let Renaissance vocal music just waft over you as a seemingly amorphous wave of music, ebbing and flowing like the tide. You can do this with this CD of Taverner’s extraordinary Missa Corona spinea, but from the very start you will realise that this is something very different. Just three notes in (after a rather curious 12 second pause at the start of the first track), the Treble line (sung by a pair of sopranos) soars up to a high B flat. From then on, this Treble line has very little chance to relax, and always seems to be attracted to this high note. This expansive vocal range is a feature of all the movements, and it grabs the attention. For example, in the Credo the Et expecto section starts with two bass lines before the treble enters two and a half octaves above them – the final cadence has a four octave span from top to bottom. The use of a double bass line is also unusual. And if you ever wondered what a Gimell was, there are two examples here, where the Trebles divide into two parts (track 7), later doing the same together another divided part (track 10) to form a double Gimell. This Mass was clearly intended for a special occasion and includes some remarkable features.

The Missa Corona spinea is the longest of all Taverner’s settings of the Mass, lasting about 48 minutes. We do not know why, or for whom or where, it was composed although, as Peter Phillips points out in his notes, it is a reasonable assumption that it was written for Cardinal Wolsey, a patron of Taverner, for a performance in his recently founded Cardinal (now Christ’s) College, Oxford, where Taverner was Master of the Choristers and the principal Organist. There is evidence that Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon visited Wolsey’s College in 1527, so this might have been the moment for Wolsey to continue his rather unwise habit of displaying his wealth and prestige to a despotic and jealous King. Wolsey had a chapel choir far in the excess of the King’s, and clearly had an outstanding group of boy treble that he wanted to show off. The dedication to the Feast of the Crown of Thorns also raises questions. It is not one of the principal feasts of the church, and would be unlikely to have attracted such a sumptuous musical setting. Hugh Benham has suggested that it was written in honour of the Queen Catherine, a devotee of the cult of the Passion, which had the Crown of Thorns as its principal emblem.

The Gimell Records website for the CD has a link to the score of the Mass, and the two settings of Dum transisset Sabbatum that complete the disc.—ii.aspx It is worth following the score, if only to see the way that Taverner uses the various vocal lines in combination. There are extensive passages for two or three voices which often overlap with sections for the full six-part chorus. The way that the Hosanna bursts in is one such example. The unidentified chant occurs ten times, one particularly dramatic occasion being at the start of the Sanctus (track 5) where the tenor chant, in very long notes, underpins a curiously anarchic soaring Treble line.

Peter Phillips takes his time to let Taverner’s complexities unfold in their own time. He encourages long phrases, resisting the occasional temptation to phrase the smaller motifs that sometimes feature. For the Mass, the choir is based on 13 voices (three in the Alto line, two each for the rest) which expand to 18 for the Gimell passages. As I have mentioned in recent concert reviews, The Tallis Scholars seem to be getting better and better – they sound magnificent on the recording. The high sopranos deserve special mention – Janet Coxwell, Amy Hawarth, joined in the Gimells by Emma Walsh. Although there is the occasional hint of a swoop up to their many top B flats, their intonation and tone is absolutely perfect – quite an achievement. The two concluding settings of Dum transisset Sabbatum are interesting examples of the way a composer can treat a chant in two different ways.

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