My Taverner Habit

East Neuk Festival Director, Svend Brown, explains his fascination for John Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea.

A composer attended the most important and magnificent diplomatic event of Henry VIII’s reign (The Field of the Cloth of Gold), the King’s chosen musician, the finest of his age – which was, by the way, an era in which British music stood among the most admired in the world, Who was he? John Taverner, one of the greatest composers these islands have ever produced – someone few music lovers know about. Fewer can name one of his pieces – not even the piece which inspired imitation and re-imaginings right up to our own time: the In Nomine. One shouldn’t get too downhearted about that kind of thing: after all Bach and Vivaldi spent their century and more in obscurity, and look at them now!

My own Taverner habit started before I heard a note of his music. Peter Maxwell Davies wrote an opera – Taverner – inspired by his life. It tells the colourful (and probably apocryphal) tale of a great musician destroyed by politics and faith in turbulent times. It captured my imagination and at the age of 17, I, and 2 friends took the bus south to London to see it at Covent Garden. Max founded his own music on Taverner’s, but transmuted it beyond recognition. Only at the tragic close do we hear clearly that In Nomine.

I heard a lot more when I was studying at Oxford: I arrived in 1983, just as an extraordinary new LP was released. Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea, performed by Christ Church Cathedral Choir direct by Francis Grier: it knocked me for six. Here was music of a flamboyant splendour and magnificence I had never imagined. It was huge, built of vast lines driven by muscular rhythmic lines over irresistibly propulsive harmonies. At once it was monumental and statuesque yet also possessed of phenomenal forward thrust and intricate detail. It was love at first sight and it was constantly on in my room: people on my stair must have loved me…. I still listen to it with huge pleasure, accepting its imperfections as part of its magnetic appeal.

Grier and his choir spent best part of a year preparing for this. Commanding the phrasing and structure is achievement enough, but the special extra challenge they set themselves was to sing it at what we believe to be the original pitch of Taverner’s time – a minor third higher than today. The score is peppered with top ‘g’s for the trebles, so the boys had to build up the stamina to hit top b-flats (that’s almost 2 octaves above middle C) every few seconds for 40 minutes. And how they hit them! The only other recording I found at the time is careful and pallid by comparison. Christ Church gave it a danger, radiance and rhythm not a million miles from the best minimal music of today. They had me from the first notes, but the best was to come. The piece shows Taverner’s mastery of choral textures. Each part of the text has its own ensemble – duos, trios, quartets… and the tuttis! They blaze. Their absolute opposite is what is called a ‘hollow texture’ – when Taverner deploys only the highest and lowest voices – no safety net between them.

The highlights of the piece are the last two sections. In the Sanctus & Benedictus (the penultimate section of the mass) Taverner writes what is called a ‘gimmell’ (twin). The mass is set for 6 voice parts: in a gimmell he divides one of those parts in two – and here it happens to be the treble. These two lines intertwine and chase each other exuberantly in the stratosphere over a deep foundation of slow moving chant miles below. It’s fantastic. Then in the Agnus Dei, he goes yet further and creates a double gimmell – so now you have the top two voices both divided to create an amazing 4 voice texture soaring and diving to the words ‘Miserere Nobis’ (Have mercy upon us). This is music that leaves me utterly awed and silenced in a way the bray of hundreds of orchestral musicians never has.

The challenges of presenting this music are considerable – not least because it is so little known. I am deeply grateful to Peter and The Tallis Scholars for performing it at ENF. I heard them do it some years ago in a building that is as fine an architectural twin to this music as any I know: York Minster. In East Neuk we will have the glories of the Barn – not such a distinguished visual, I concede, but – I hope – an acoustic in which this music will glow and float. And after all, Taverner came from farming country – Lincolnshire, where he is buried.

© Svend Brown 2013