Guest Column with Suzanne Cole

October 11 / 71

Suzanne Cole is an ARC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. She completed her PhD on the reception of the sacred choral music of Thomas Tallis in late 2004. Her book on this topic, Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England, was published by Boydell & Brewer, UK, June 2008

The sacred choral music of composers such as Tallis and Byrd, Taverner and Gibbons lies at the heart of the repertory of English Cathedral choirs, and of an ever-increasing number of secular choirs, amateur and professional, including the Tallis Scholars, the Cardinall’s Musick and, closer to home, the Tudor Choristers and The Parson’s Affayre, based in Sydney. 

A sense of timeless continuity is inherent to the appeal of the English choral tradition, yet in reality, the veneration of this music is quite a recent phenomenon. Before the twentieth century, only a tiny portion of this repertoire was ever heard: Byrd’s now extremely well known Mass for five voices did not receive its first modern performance until 1899; his masterpiece for the Anglican liturgy, the ‘Great’ Service, was not revived in full until as late as 1924.

The 25 year period marked out by these two performances saw an astonishing and unprecedented explosion of interest in, and knowledge of, the music of Byrd and his contemporaries, and a radical reconfiguring of public perceptions of this music, from the almost exclusive preserve of Roman Catholics to a ‘national heritage’. 

One of the main factors in this dramatic resurrection of interest in early music was the 10-volume ‘Tudor Church Music’ edition published by OUP in the 1920s.  This edition of predominantly Roman Catholic church music was funded, somewhat surprisingly, by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, established by the American railway millionaire Andrew Carnegie to disperse the interest on $10,000,000 ‘for the improvement of the well-being of the masses of the people of Great Britain and Ireland’. It was the first serious attempt to show that England had a musical heritage that could be put up against the monumental editions of Handel, Bach, Palestrina and others that had been published in Germany in the nineteenth century.

Over the past four years, with the assistance of an ARC postdoctoral fellowship, I have undertaken a detailed examination of the social, religious and personal agendas that fuelled the revival of interest in English music of the sixteenth century, which continues to shape perceptions of English music to this day.

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