Tag Archives: Tallis

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Music

Choral Vespers, St Anselm & St Caecelia, Lincoln’s Inn Fields


One of the choirs I sing with is Schola Assumptionis, which comes together to sing polyphonic music at masses and evensongs wherever we can get gigs. It’s mostly centred  on St Anselm & St Caecelia’s, just off Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but we’ve also sung at St. Mary’s, Stoke Newington and other C of E churches around London, so it’s nicely balanced in terms of the confessional divide. Singing at both RC and Anglican services means we can do a variety of music; at evensong it’s inevitably Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons and so on and at vespers we take our pick from the vast repertoire of Continental polyphony.

Last Saturday we were at choral vespers at SS Anselm and Caecelia. For anyone not familiar with the vespers service (and as I am not a Catholic I count myself among that number), it’s structured as chant, hymn  – not a hymn as in Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer but more chant interspersed with a choir setting – Latin psalms, reading and the Magnificat as a motet. Then yet more chant, a choir motet, benediction and the whole thing is over in three-quarters of an hour. Anyone familiar with evensong will see the structural similarity, but at vespers the whole thing is in Latin, and there’s a lot of incense.

Getting to grips with chant is hard. The notation is crazy.  Look at the example I’ve uploaded; it’s nowhere near as easy to read as normal music. Modern chant notation is simplified, but they’re pretty hardcore down at SS Anselm & Caecelia and this older style is used.

It’s the polyphony I turn up for, though; we sang Tomas Luis da Victoria’s A Patre Unigenite, a Lassus Magnificat and ended up with a Hassler motet, Cantate Domino. If you’re a novice to this sort of music you’ll probably be told to go away and listen to Tallis’s Spem In Alium or anything by Palestrina, but I don’t have it within me to love the glacial spikiness of Tallis and I find Palestrina just too pretty-pretty. The best introduction to Renaissance polyphony is the glorious, terrifying Victoria Officium Defunctorum (or requiem) of 1605 and the Byrd mass for four voices, thought to be written in the early 1590s.

And there’s a back story to them both that illuminates the music – Byrd, as is well known, was a recusant Catholic in Elizabethan England, which explains the plangent, yearning quality to his music. As a singer I particularly like Byrd because he gives the altos a lot of good lines – we totally take the lead on the mass in four parts. There’s nowhere to hide:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yT0kLA6DHA

By contrast, I like to think you can really hear the fervour of the Inquisition in Victoria’s work; his Tenebrae Responsiores narrates the Passion and is sung in Holy Week. Turn the light down low, turn the volume up and listen to O Vos Omnes, and see if you don’t shiver. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85XUFpdgUac

Leave a comment

Filed under Music