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Tallis Scholars Programme

Tallis Scholars From Taverner to Tavener

Taverner, John  Dum transisset sabbatum I

Tavener, John As one who has slept

Tavener Funeral Ikos

Taverner  In pace

Taverner Dum transisset sabbatum II

Tavener Song for Athene

Tavener The Lamb

Tavener Our father (1999)

Taverner Quaemadmodum

Taverner Gaude plurimum


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Programme Note

With the exception of their nearly identical names, there is little at first glance to connect John Taverner, the sixteenth-century church musician, with John Tavener, avante-garde composer and 60s enfant terrible turned spiritual icon. Yet the legacies of both composers rest on sacred music of astonishing power and beauty, constructed from elegantly simple means, and speaking to the central spiritual truths of their respective ages. This programme, marking the tenth anniversary of the latter Tavener’s death, celebrates the legacy of both.

Of Taverner we know relatively little, save from his period of employment at a brand-new educational foundation in Oxford. It was established by Wolsey, one of Henry VIII’s most trusted advisors, who named it after himself: Cardinal College. Taverner was the first Informator Choristarum (Director of Choristers) at the college which was later to become Christ Church, directing and writing music for the well-appointed choir.

Dum transisset Sabbatum describes the central moment of the Christian story, when Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ come to the tomb on Easter Sunday, bringing spices to anoint the dead Jesus, and find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. The music of both of Taverner’s known settings of this text is built around a cantus firmus, plainchant delivered in long notes by the tenor. This was a common technique of the period, though here it seems to suggest a further resonance: the central truth of the Easter message quite literally underpinning the whole piece.

Born some 450 years after Taverner, John Tavener was to pursue a more pluralistic view of religion than that permitted to the composer he claimed as an ancestor. In a wide-ranging career, he set words from all the world’s major religions, though displaying a particular affinity with the spirituality of the Russian Orthodox Church, to which he had officially converted in the late 1970s.

Like Dum transisset, As one who has slept is an anthem for Eastertide. Here, slow-moving chords drift in parallel motion. At the base of the texture is a low drone, a favourite technique of the composer’s, lending it the atmosphere of a ceaseless, timeless ritual. Taking its text from the Orthodox Great Liturgy of St Basil, the piece perfectly evokes the solemn, liminal quality of Holy Saturday – the day after Christ’s crucifixion but before his resurrection.

Throughout his career, Tavener displayed the ability to achieve the most profound results with the simplest of means. Funeral Ikos, first performed by The Tallis Scholars, is a perfect example: a reserved, almost austere setting of words from the Greek Orthodox burial service. The use of unison, breaking into mirror-like contrary movement, is characteristic, as is the spare, ritualistic treatment of the text.

The earlier Taverner’s In pace is found within a collection of music copies known as the Gyffard Partbooks. Partly copied out during the reign of Mary Tudor, they contain a large selection of liturgical music by the greatest composers of the age. The text belongs to the night office of Compline, with the plainchant slowly intoned in the uppermost voice, proceeding so unhurriedly and meditatively that each syllable sometimes takes several bars. While it would be anachronistic to call this ‘minimalist’, heard in this context it does seem to foreshadow the later Tavener at his most contemplative.

The cantus firmus style of composition, like an elegant puzzle, admits of multiple solutions; Taverner’s second setting of Dum transisset uses the same plainchant and structure as his first, but finds different harmonic and melodic potentialities within it. Heard in such close proximity, they are like two sides of the same coin.

Song for Athene, written after the unexpected death of a family friend, Athene Hariades, became embedded in the public consciousness after it was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. The sincerity and impact of the words, fashioned from a fusion of Orthodox ritual and Shakespeare, together with its radiantly optimistic, alleluiatic conclusion, struck an instant chord with a grieving public. The Lamb is another well-known work, and certainly the composer’s most famous carol. In this tender and affecting setting of William Blake’s poem, a simple melody plays against its inversion, like reflections in water.

The Lord’s Prayer is one of several settings of these words written by Tavener during his life. This version, written in 1999 for The Tallis Scholars, has a simple beauty, borrowing some of its harmonic language from his popular miniature Mother of God, Here I Stand. It would later be incorporated into a set of Preces & Responses for use at Anglican Choral Evensong.

The earlier Taverner’s motet Quemadmodum remains something of a mystery. The piece survives as a seemingly instrumental composition, textless save for the title. However, scholars have discovered that the text of the 42nd Psalm, of which Quemadmodum is the first word, can be fitted to the music. The result is a moving work of seamless polyphony.

Taverner’s period of employment at Cardinal College lasted a mere four years, after which Wolsey’s precipitous fall from grace led to the college falling into disrepair. But what glories there must have been in that short time. Gaude plurimum is an antiphon to Mary on a grand scale. The composer’s deft handling of texture prevents the long text from dragging, spinning out passages for two or three voices before bringing the full choir in for moments of emphasis.

Mary acts as the portal to Christ, the ‘gate of salvation’, through which the devout may gain access to the heavenly grace. Each successive verse enumerates the joys of Mary, and it is only at the last verse that the suppliants find themselves able to address Christ directly, albeit with deeply bowed head.

© James M. Potter, 2023.

Texts & Translations

Taverner, John (c1490-1545) Dum transisset sabbatum I

Dum transisset Sabbatum Maria Magdalene et Maria Jacobi et Salome emerunt aromata, ut venientes ungerent Jesum.  Alleluia.
Et valde mane una sabbatorum veniunt ad monumentum, orto iam sole. Ut venientes ungerent Jesum. Alleluia.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.  Alleluia.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Salome bought aromatic oils intending to go and anoint Jesus.  Alleluia.
And very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb; they came intending to anoint Jesus. Alleluia.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.  Alleluia.

Tavener, John (1944-2013) As One Who Has Slept

As one who has slept,
the Lord has risen,
and rising He has saved us.

Tavener, John Funeral Ikos

Why these bitter words of the dying, O brethren, which they utter as they go hence?

I am parted from my brethren.  All my friends do I abandon and go hence.  But whither I go, that understand I not, neither what shall become of me yonder; only God who hath summoned me knoweth.  But make commemoration of me with the song: alleluia.

But whither now go the souls?  How dwell they now together there?  This mystery have I desired to learn, but none can impart aright.  Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them?  Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them and make the song: alleluia.

We go forth on the path eternal, and as condemned, with downcast faces, present ourselves before the only God eternal.  Where then is comeliness?  Where then is wealth?  Where then is the glory of this world?  There shall none of these things aid us, but only to say oft the psalm: alleluia.

If thou hast shown mercy unto man, O man, that same mercy shall be shown thee there; and if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion, the same shall there deliver thee from want.  If in this life the naked thou hast clothed, the same shall give thee shelter there, and sing the psalm: alleluia.

Youth and the beauty of the body fade at  the hour of death, and the tongue then burneth fiercely, and the parched throat is inflamed.  The beauty of the eyes is quenched then, the comeliness of the face all altered, the shapeliness of the neck destroyed; and all other parts have become numb, nor often say: alleluia.

With ecstasy are we inflamed if we but hear that there is light eternal yonder, that there is paradise, wherein every soul of righteous ones rejoiceth.  Let us all, also, enter into Christ, that all we may cry aloud thus unto God: alleluia.

Taverner, John In Pace

In pace in idipsum dormiam et requiescam, si dedero somnum oculis meis, et palpebris meis dormitationem.  Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.

I shall sleep in peace and rest in myself if I have given sleep to my eyes and slumber to my eyelids.  Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.

Taverner, John Dum transisset sabbatum II

Dum transisset Sabbatum Maria Magdalene et Maria Jacobi et Salome emerunt aromata, ut venientes ungerent Jesum.  Alleluia.
Et valde mane una sabbatorum veniunt ad monumentum, orto iam sole. Ut venientes ungerent Jesum. Alleluia.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.  Alleluia.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Salome bought aromatic oils intending to go and anoint Jesus.  Alleluia.
And very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb; they came intending to anoint Jesus. Alleluia.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.  Alleluia.


Tavener, John Song for Athene

Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Alleluia. Remember me O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.
Alleluia. Give rest O Lord to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep.
Alleluia. The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life, and door of paradise.
Alleluia. Life: a shadow and a dream.
Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia.
Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.

Tavener, John The Lamb (text: William Blake, 1757-1827)

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

Gave thee life, and bid thee feed

By the stream and o’er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight

Softest clothing, woolly, bright;

Gave thee such a tender voice,

Making all the vales rejoice?

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?


Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee;

He is called by thy name,

For he calls himself a Lamb.

He is meek and he is mild;

He became a little child.

I, a child, and thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

Tavener, John Our Father (1999)

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  Amen.

Taverner, John Quemadmodum

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum: ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus.  Sitivit anima ad Deum fortem vivum: quando veniam et apparebo ante faciem Dei?

Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God.  My soul is athirst for God, yea, even the living God: when shall I come before the presence of God?

Taverner, John Gaude plurimum

Gaude plurimum, salvatoris nostri mater, femina quae vixerunt omnium felicissima, sola virgo prae ceteris, quae naturali partu, sed conceptione caelesti mediam divinae trinitatis personam, verum Deum, sempiterni patris sempiternum filium, quo nos a perpetua morte servaremur, benignius hominem edidisti.

Gaude Maria virgo divinitus hanc tibi praestitam gratiam, ut ipsa praeter ceteras omnes unica sis mortalis femina, quae Christum Jesum in utero gesseris, gravida ederis enixa materno foveris gremio immortalem sobolem.

Gaude sacratissima virgo, illum non minus tibi quam ceteris hominibus immortalem filium peperisse, qui caelica sua potestate inferni debellavit tyrannidem cruentas mortis aeternae principis vires fregit, vitamque humano generi perpetuam restituit.

Gaude Maria, Jesu mater, talem te genuisse filium, qui divina sua resurrectione futurae nostrae in gloria resurrectionis spem certam tradidit; ad Deumque Patrem ascendens, et Deus et homo, misericordia plenus, in caelum quoque reditum omnibus pollicetur.

Gaudemus itaque et nos omnes nobis et tuae beatitudini, Maria, Jesu mater, gratias habentes gratulamur, quae supernam adepta gratiam ad perennem quoque in caelum gloriam assumpta es.

Eundem igitur Jesum tuum filium supplices deprecamur, ut, qui indigni qui exaudiamur assequi non valemus tuis benignissimis precibus impetrare possimus eandem tecum caelestem gloriam.  (Amen.)

Rejoice greatly, mother of our saviour, most blessed of all women who have lived, the one virgin above all the rest who by natural birth but heavenly conception kindly brought forth as man the middle person of the divine trinity, true God, eternal Son of the eternal Father, that we might be saved by him from everlasting death.

Rejoice, Virgin Mary, in this outstanding grace from heaven, that thou thyself above all others shouldst be the one mortal woman who bore Christ Jesus in thy womb, who, being great with child gave birth and, having borne the child, cherishedst the immortal offspring in thy maternal lap.

Rejoice, most holy virgin, that thou barest him who is an immortal son to thee no less than to the rest of mankind, who by his heavenly power vanquished the tyranny of hell, crushed the bloody power of the prince of eternal death, and restored everlasting life to mankind.

Rejoice, Mary, mother of Jesus, that thou gavest birth to such a son, who by his divine resurrection gave us the sure hope of our future resurrection in glory; and who, ascending to God the Father, both God and man, full of mercy, promises a return to heaven for all.

And so we rejoice, and we all congratulate ourselves, giving thanks also to thy blessedness, O Mary, mother of Jesus, who hast gained divine favour, and been taken up into heaven to everlasting glory.  Therefore we as supplicants pray to the same Jesus thy Son that we, who are unworthy, and cannot reach to be heard, may with thy most pleasing prayers attain the same heavenly glory with thee. (Amen.)