Tallis, In Jejunio Et Fletu

With fasting and tears the priests prayed: ‘Spare your people, Lord, and do not give your heritage over to destruction’. Between the porch and the altar the priests were weeping, saying: ‘Spare your people’.

Schola Assumptionis sang this text yesterday at a Latin mass (old rite) at St Anselm and St Caecelia in Holborn. It’s a setting by Thomas Tallis called In Jejunio Et Fletu, and it’s suitably Lenten. The rest of the music was solid Byrd – the utterly sublime Mass for Five Voices and a Gaude Virgo that is so little known you can’t even find it on YouTube.


I suspect In Jejunio Et Fletu is not sung very much because of the voicing; the one mezzo line is more of an alto part really, and there are two tenors, a baritone and bass lines. On first hearing it I didn’t much take to it, but by the third time I sang it in rehearsal the big sombre slabs of sound locked in my head and wouldn’t let go. There are a few versions available on YouTube, but some of them are a bit over-ponderous. I like this recording best.

In Jejunio et Fletu was first published in 1575 as part of Cantiones Sacrae, a large collection of sacred motets composed by Tallis and his pupil William Byrd. Tallis and Byrd dominated sixteenth-century English music, not just artistically but commercially; Elizabeth granted them the joint monopoly on music publishing. Of the Cantiones Sacrae, Tallis’s O Nata Lux is probably the most often programmed, but the other pieces haven’t quite made it into choral consciousness in the way that the Byrd masses have.

Cantiones Sacrae was an expensive product and the pair lost money on the printing. Buyers tended to be private individuals rather than institutions such as cathedrals. John Milsom has traced some of the motets in cathedral manuscript collections, and the Latin is almost invariably translated into English for consumption at Anglican services. Then again, Cantiones Sacrae wasn’t just a purely musical venture; it was a bit of cultural flag-planting and a deliberate act of ingratiation by two Catholic composers with the Protestant monarch. Byrd and Tallis each contributed 17 motets to mark Elizabeth’s 17th anniversary on the throne and her accession on 17 November.  Numerology aside, the coding isn’t hard to crack. The text of In Jejunio Et Fletu is taken from Joel 2: 17, Joel being a post-exilic prophet who writes about living under the heathen. For a Catholic living under the new Protestant settlement, the meaning is clear.

For more on this, check out Mathew Lyons’  fascinating review of God’s Traitors,  a new book by Jessie Childs on Catholic lives in Elizabethan England.



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