Imagine yourself in a lofty cathedral, silver voices echoing off of vaulted stone, with a slight chill in the close air. Are you there? Ok, now you’re ready for the music of English composer John Taverner.
Touted as the most influential composer of his time, Taverner (c.1490-1545) was and continues to be admired for his skill in the creation of polyphonic (‘many-voiced’) music — that is, independent musical lines that layer on top of each other in a way that sounds harmonious; the lines fit together without losing any of their individuality.
Taverner, who died on this day in 1545 in Boston, Lincolnshire, was a composer of church music, employed by Catholic institutions Cardinal College (now Christ Church) and the Gild of St. Mary for a little over a decade of his adult life. His lifespan was almost exactly that of King Henry VIII (1491-1547), and, considering Henry’s contentious relationship with the Pope, it is perhaps not surprising that Taverner seems to have retired altogether from being a church musician a few years after Henry’s 1534 Act of Supremacy. (This didn’t stop Taverner dying a wealthy and highly respected man, though.)
There is a lot of the cathedral in Taverner’s music. Polyphony is complex in and of itself, but the way in which Taverner was able to manipulate musical notes so as to create beautifully interlocking, independent lines — at times bringing those lines together to create brief moments of homophony — is as impressive as the architectural marvels that are cathedrals. Anyone who has written counterpoint, or perhaps a particularly clever bit of code, can tell you that this is no small feat.
Take the Gloria from his “Western Wind” Mass for example (the score). Even if you can’t read music, you can tell that there are times when the text is being declaimed at relatively the same pace in all voices (homophony), and there are times when the voices separate out and sing the text at highly differing paces (polyphony).
For fun, trying picking one of the voices in the score (s=soprano, a=alto, t=tenor, b=bass) and following its progress while listening to the Gloria (the music in the score begins at 0:11 of the video).
Now, do that with all the other voices, and you’ll begin to have a glimmering of the skill and artistry that went into making this! Don’t you wish you were as skilled in making all the different threads of your life weave together so artfully?
As you exit the chilly cathedral into the fresh air beyond, remember, 467 years ago today an Englishman died who created some pretty impressive works of art.