Thomas Tallis: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal
The Gentlemen of HM Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace
Resonus RES10229. 68’22
Suscipe quaeso Domine, Missa Puer natus est nobis, In pace in idipsum,
Miserere nostri Domine, Mass for Four Voices, Loquebantur variis linguis.
There can be very few other examples of early music recordings where the composer, the choir, and the recording venue are so closely matched. This CD from the present-day Gentlemen of HM Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace was recorded in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court, a surviving part of the Tudor Palace of Henry VIII. Tallis was a Gentleman of the Tudor Chapel Royal from the early 1540s until his death in 1585 and would have certainly sung and played the organ in this very chapel. Several of the compositions on this recording may well have been performed in the same Hampton Court Chapel. Before the period-appropriate comments overwhelm, it is worth pointing out that it is probably only some of the external walls and the magnificent ceiling (pictured on the CD cover) that date from the time of Tallis. The enormous Renaissance Palace of Hampton was built by Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey, who was also the Cardinal Archbishop of York and Papal Legate, with a clerical ranking higher than that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, then and now, England’s premier Archbishop. He only managed to retain his Palace for about ten years before falling from grace as a result of failing to secure Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. It was ‘surrendered’ to Henry VIII who set about rebuilding and expanding it. It was completed in 1540 at about the time that Tallis joined the Chapel Royal.
Henry VII designated the Chapel as one of three Chapels Royals, an amendment to early Court practice that survives to this day. In earlier times, the Chapel Royal was not linked to any specific building, but described the body of priests and musicians that followed the monarch wherever he went, including into battle. However, Henry created separate Chapels Royal at St James’s Palace (the senior of the three), Hampton Court Palace, and the church of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower of London. The only time now that we see the Chapel Royal functioning in the singular pre-Henry VIII manner is during the annual Service of Remembrance in Whitehall when the Queen is attended by the Chapel Royal of St James’s Palace.
This recording omits the 18 boys of the usual Chapel choir, leaving the six current ‘Gentlemen’ plus an additional eight adult male singers to allow two-to-a-part in the four large-scale seven-voice pieces: the opening Suscipe quaeso Domine, the Missa Puer natus est nobis, Miserere nostri Domine and Loquebantur variis linguis. The In pace in idipsum and the Mass for Four Voices use the smaller forces of the six current Gentlemen. Dating of some of the pieces is problematical, but it seems likely that the opening two pieces (Suscipe quaeso Domine, the Missa Puer natus est nobis) might both have been composed in the same year, 1554, the first possibly as part of the Papal absolution for the English schism, the second for the marriage in St Paul’s Cathedral between Queen Mary I to the Hapsburg Philip of Spain. For that occasion, the Chapel Royal was joined by King Philip’s Spanish counterpart, the Capilla Flamenca. They did not use treble voices, hence the need for Tallis to compose music for the lower voices only, as he does in both works. Despite the marriage being in June, the use of the Christmas plainsong introit (A boy is born unto us) as the basis for the Mass was appropriate for the occasion and the dynastic nature of the occasion.
Two four-part settings provide a textural contrast to the seven-voice pieces, with the Lenten alternatim responsory In pace in idipsum and the Mass for Four Voices. Both are early works, written during Henry VIII’s reign, the former probably early in Tallis’s time with the Chapel Royal (c1540), the latter towards the end of Henry’s life (c1547). They are separated by the seven-voice Miserere nostri Domine. Like the opening Suscipe quaeso Domine, it was published in the 1575 Cantiones sacrae. It is the last of Tallis’s seventeen contributions in honour of Elizabeth I’s 17 years reign. The figure of 17 is represented in the score by the bass line having just seventeen long-held notes. The seven voices of the final Pentecostal responsory Loquebantur variis linguis represent the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost
The singing of the Chapel Royal Choir is exquisite, notwithstanding a bit of vibrato that creeps in at times. They sing in a direct and forthright, but sensitive manner, without overpowering the relatively small acoustics of the space. The four countertenors, in particular, maintain a clean and unaffected upper line. Conductor Carl Jackson balances the voices exceptionally well, and creates a very satisfying sense of the overall structure of the pieces without recourse to excessive changes of volume. The release of this recording was celebrated in November 2018 by a rare performance of a pre-Reformation Mass at Hampton Court Chapel, including the Missa Puer natus est nobis. Further information, and a link to the programme notes, can be found here.