For the music of Tallis and Byrd there could hardly be a more apt setting. The first part of the Singers' programme was Tudor church music. This is music where the beauty lies in restraint and simplicity and in the space between the notes. Palestrina, Monteverdi and the great Europeans wrote music to be heard through the smoke of incense and among piers of gold and porphyry. But in the late sixteenth century such colour and visual drama was disappearing from English churches. Nothing should stand between man and the unadorned word of God, declared the leaders of the Reformation; and their interdicts extended to the music too. What we take as delight in native simplicity stems from a protestant Stalinism. Just as Shostakovich and others had to bend to the Soviet wind, so too did the Tudor musicians among the storms of their times. Archbishop Cranmer expressly prohibited the continental melismatic style that the words be heard more clearly. A little later, Queen Elizabeth herself proscribed church polyphony, save for the most limited of occasions.
Thomas Tallis was burdened with this yoke, but it may not have been too heavy a burden, because he proved a great survivor in the manner of the Vicar of Bray. Born in 1505, he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal under Henry VIII and remained in post through all the vicissitudes of the next three reigns until his death in 1585. It is thought that he remained a Catholic, and indeed Queen Mary granted him a manor in return for his musical service; but equally, protestant Queen Elizabeth was happy to reward him(together with William Byrd , a yet more determined recusant) with monopolies and patents relating to polyphonic music.
William Byrd, born in 1540 and to whom Tallis was a mentor, found it more difficult to conform to his times. Thus he lost a post at Lincoln cathedral in 1569 probably due to his fondness for the proscribed polyphony; and in 1584 when fear of Catholicism was again nearing a flood he was suspended from the Chapel Royal. Yet he survived and continued to produce wonderful choral and instrumental work until well into the reign of King James I. He died in 1623.
That both Tallis and Byrd outwore their uncomfortable times and to some extent flourished must be a tribute to their talent, as it was to Shostakovich. But you would be hard-pressed to identify the turbulence of their days in the pieces we sang the other week. The music embodies humility and equanimity. It finds peace in surrender. Perhaps these were the qualities that each man needed to survive, but they do not speak of the blood and fire that surrounded them. More, to us it is almost beyond imagining that the sentiments and sensiblity of such music could be owned by the same men of faith who hearing it could go out and torture and burn in the name of their religion. You have to doubt they listened with their hearts.
The intervening centuries have taught most us the value of doubt. But the truth of the music remains. So when even as unbelievers we step of an evening into a quiet country church, the turbulence of our own times can be briefly set aside, and we can breathe in something that seems more eternal and profound. It is something of which we are part, but something that we are grateful will outlast us yet.