Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Tudor Contrafactum

In the May 2016 issue of Early Music, David Skinner presented a new discovery about a collaboration between Henry VIII's last wife, Katherine Parr and Thomas Tallis:

Thomas Tallis’s Gaude gloriosa Dei mater is one of the finest large-scale Tudor votive antiphons. It has long been regarded as a celebration of the short-lived return to Catholicism under Queen Mary and as a tribute to the Henrician masterpieces of the pre-Reformation years. All of the sources are Elizabethan, but one: the incomplete fragments of the Contratenor part with a hitherto unidentified English text, discovered in 1978 during building renovations at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. The author of that text has now been identified as Henry VIII’s sixth and last queen, Katherine Parr. Less than a year after her marriage to Henry, Katherine produced her first publication, Psalmes or Prayers (1544). These included 15 psalm-collages (or psalm ‘centos’) translated into English from Fisher’s Psalmi seu precationes , originally published in 1525. Katherine’s translations are followed by a prayer for the king, and another ‘for men to saie entryng into battaile’. England was at war with Scotland and France. The Ninth Psalm, ‘Se lorde and behold’, headed ‘against ennemies’ was set to an earlier version of Tallis’s Gaude gloriosa. This discovery sheds light on the circumstances behind the production of this most extraordinary English contrafactum. It is here argued that the adaptation was not only intimately bound with Psalmes or prayers but also with Cranmer’s Exhortation unto prayer and English Litany, and part of a flurry of activity leading to its first use at St Paul’s Cathedral on Friday, 23 May. It would have been a unique and short-lived event quite new to the liturgical stage including as its centrepiece an English version with stirring themes of war of the most complex early Tudor votive antiphons. More personally, the exercise seems aptly to demonstrate Katherine’s passion for reform and Henry’s growing conservatism in the final years of his reign: an elaborate meld of a hotly topical vernacular text with an established stylistic idiom. The earlier Henrician origins of Gaude gloriosa are also considered.

Here is a performance of Tallis's Gaude gloriosa dei mater. More about that piece here.

It is extraordinary, however, that Parr would translate the work of a traitor against her husband--a little like having a portrait of his first wife around--except that Parr did use the saintly bishop's works in a definitely reformist way. David Skinner and Alamire will perform the piece on Good Friday as part of the Holy Week Festival at St. John Smith's and Obsidian will release a CD by Alamire and Fretwork later this year.

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