First-rate English Music

tallis and byrd

Print by Gerhard van der Gucht, 18th c.

Gustav Holst’s The Planets is first-rate music.

Here is a curious thing: the piece is characteristically Holst, yet it is at the same time characteristically English.  That is, suppose you had some musicologist who knew a lot about early twentieth century music yet who had (impossible, I know, but for the sake of argument) never heard this piece of music.  Not only would the musicologist say “English” after hearing only a few bars, he or she would also almost certainly say “Holst!”

Now take the musicologist out of the picture.  What about The Planets makes it distinctly English?  And what makes it Holst’s?

I think the questions are really one and the same; don’t let the layers persuade you otherwise.  One deals with England on a societal level, as a culture.  The other perceives the effects of that culture upon an individual Englishman.  But it’s really the same issue: English music of the early twentieth century—and the English people who composed it—is distinct from contemporaneous music from the Continent, or from America, or from South America, Africa, or Asia.  Holst shares a bond with Vaughan Williams that he does not share with Mahler, Copland, Ginastera, or any other first-rate, non-British composer of his time.

So English music is somehow its own beast, different from the musics of the Old World and the New.  Why?  An answer is difficult to articulate, no doubt because the question is so large.  Still, I think we can begin to scratch the surface.

If we go back a few centuries, to the sixteenth, we run into a remarkable English court musician by the name of Thomas Tallis.  He began his sixty-year career during the reign of Henry VIII and completed it during Elizabeth’s, working until his death in 1585.  Now if you don’t find that significant then you need to brush up on your history.  For Henry initiated a religious split from the Roman Church, declaring himself and not the Pope as the English Church’s supreme Head.  Following his death, Edward VI came to the throne, as thoroughly Protestant as any English monarch ever was.  Next, Jane Grey jumped (or was she pushed?) in as monarch for nine days before Mary, a. k. a. Bloody Mary, came to the throne in 1553.  Mary was as Roman Catholic in word as Edward VI was Protestant; in deed she is remembered for the public executions of nearly 400 Protestants in five years.  Finally, Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 and settled the religious drama by solidifying the Anglican Church, an institution not Catholic enough for the Romans and certainly not Protestant enough for the Lutherans and Calvinists.  As for Tallis, he navigated these rough religious waters admirably, the only court employee to endure these four (or five, if you count Grey) monarchies.

When Tallis began serving as a Court Musician, polyphony was all the rage on the Continent.  Think Palestrina, if you know the name.  But then Luther got people thinking.  And that John Calvin character!  One voice would leap over another, three beats behind it, only to be overrun by another, and yet another, and all of it sung on a single syllable of that dead language Latin—how could anyone even grasp what the message is!  Protestants called for musical simplicity, one syllable per note.  Polyphony was too complex, like the devil.  But for Tallis—whether because he found the melodies and simple harmonies too bland for his musical sensibilities or because he was a Catholic at heart, I don’t know—something a bit more complex, but not so complex as polyphony, resulted, and apparently Henry and Edward were okay with it.  Under Mary, Tallis produced some complex polyphony (listen to Puer natus est nobis if you ever get the chance), persuading me at any rate that he remained Catholic through all the hubbub.  And under Elizabeth, while leaving behind polyphony for the most part, we still see awe-inspiring complexity.  His famous forty-voice motet Spem in alium comes from this period.

The point in all this is that by the time Elizabeth acceded to the throne, Tallis had come into his own musically; and his own was nothing like the Protestant or Catholic music on the Continent.  Like the Anglican Church, Tallis’s music was unique.  For that matter, Tallis the man was unique.

Tallis forged a new road musically then.  Is it difficult to see that Holst still travels that same, unique British road in the early twentieth century?  Could we say the same for the Beatles? Led Zeppelin? Pink Floyd? Sting? Adele?

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