Politics and dogma leave their temporary mark on the shifting sands of history, while music remains eternal.
The life of the great English composer Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) is a testament to this idea. While Tallis remained an “unreformed Roman Catholic” throughout his life, he adapted professionally to serve the monarch of the time. He wrote for the Latin Catholic Mass until Henry VIII’s break with Rome. After writing Anglican music, he returned to the Catholic Mass to accommodate Queen Mary. Under Elizabeth I, he returned to the Anglican tradition.
The brief four-part motet, If Ye Love Me, was published in 1565 during Elizabeth’s reign. It is a setting of a passage from the Gospel of John (4:15-17). Tallis’ writing conforms to the pure, homophonic style of the time, employing “to each syllable a plain and distinct note.” Yet, while generally staying within these parameters, Tallis seems to push the boundaries, allowing intimations of glorious imitative counterpoint to blossom. If Ye Love Me is still a standard motet of the Anglican tradition, with performances at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and during Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 visit to Westminster Abbey. Surviving the winds of change over the course of 400 years, it comes to us as pure music.
Here is a 2004 recording featuring The Tallis Scholars and the vocal ensemble’s founder, Peter Phillips:
- Tallis: If Ye Love Me, Peter Phillips, The Tallis Scholars Amazon
Photograph: Stone sculptures at the entrance of Canterbury Cathedral where Thomas Tallis sang in the choir between 1540 and 1543.