Chelmsford Cathedral Choir

Chelmsford Cathedral Choir: Tallis Lamentations

Monday 2nd July, 7.30pm, Mundon Church

In the tempestuous years of England’s Reformation, musicians such as Thomas Tallis often needed to leap back and forth over the devotional fence. Despite his personal Catholic faith, Tallis retained his position in the Chapel Royal well into the Protestant regime of Elizabeth I. Enjoying her protection, Tallis continued to compose Latin sacred music, which was still sometimes performed in the Chapel Royal early in her reign, and later could have served underground Catholic liturgies. Thus, it is often difficult to read the composer’s intention in some of the music. Tallis composed two extended settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, for instance. On one hand, both suit liturgical propriety. This Second Lesson follows the First Lesson quite properly in its text: Lamentations 1:3-5. It begins with the appropriate incipit De lamentatione, ends with the Jerusalem convertere, and includes separate imitative settings of the three Hebrew acrostic letters retained in the Latin text. Tallis’ Second Lamentation, thus, perfectly suits the Maundy Thursday liturgy as found in both the Sarum and Roman rites. He does not, however, include the proper plainchant. Furthermore, the highly personal and affective compositional style of the Lamentations stretches the bounds of liturgy. Instead, Tallis’ Lamentations have most often been read as a personal and private lament on the state of English religious life. The texts, evocative cries from the prophet Jeremiah on the desolation of sinful Jerusalem, followed by Hosea’s plea for her repentance, well serve such a purpose. Tallis chooses the rich texture of five low voices for both of his Lamentations, and gives to them both a particularly plangent harmonic language of plagal cadences and cross-relations. Where the First Lesson features a rhetorical solo voice, the Second Lesson uses often intense word-painting for its effects. From the opening, the music is riddled with sharp cross-relations and weary repetitions of imitative motives. Close musical reflections of the text include the uncertain and shifting harmonies on “Judah has migrated” and the long (canonic) downward sequence under the text “she finds no rest.” The relentless counterpoint is finally broken by stark homophony as the text mourns the lost children; this leads to a remarkably plaintive series of cries, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convert!” The melody of this final section at first inhabits but a narrow arch, gradually expanding through repetitions and sequences and culminating in a bass octave descent. Yet Tallisrepeats the cry again, “Convert!” Melismas sweep underneath a melody, which remains insistently on one pitch.

Chelmsford Cathedral Choir features a “back row” of lay clerks and choral scholars. In recent years, the number of these latter has expanded to six singers, who are either between school and university or are recent post graduates. In addition, the choir supports junior choral scholars who are still at school and who sang the treble line with the choir earlier in their careers.


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