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Review: New York Polyphony Makes Beautiful Music, But At What Cost?

New York Polyphony

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, February 26, 2018

Thomas Tallis (1505?-1585) and his colleagues may have left virtually no information about how they wanted their sacred choral music to be performed, but they were abundantly—well-nigh exuberantly—clear about why they wrote it and what they expected to accomplish by it. And now we have the New York Polyphony.

It was all about the words.

The first and greatest of the “rules to be observed in dittying” laid out by Tallis’s younger contemporary Thomas Morley (here, beginning on p. 177) is this: “Dispose your musicke according to the nature of the words which you are therein to expresse; as to whatsoever matter it be which you have in hand, such a kind of musicke must you frame to it.” And the second is like unto it: all technical and structural elements of a musical setting must be chosen and deployed so that their “naturall motions may serve to…fitlie expresse the passions.” An influential metrical psalter, to which Tallis contributed, invokes the Doctors of the Church to make the same point: “Let [the music] not deprive the letter of the sense, but rather augment it,” says Bernard of Clairvaux, “For it is no light losse of spirituall grace, to be carried away from the profitablenes of the sense, with the lightnes of the notes, and to bee more carefull upon the chanting of the voyce, then to geve heede to the matter”; while Augustine confesses, “When I fele this in my selfe that the melodie moveth me more than the matter of the dittie which is sung, I then…offend mortally therin, & then wish I rather not to heare such singyng then so to heare it.”

I wonder what Tallis (or Morley, or Bernard, or Augustine) would have made of New York Polyphony’s survey of Tallis’s legacy, this past Saturday evening at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, just off Times Square. It was beautiful through and through, in every moment, in every word and syllable, and exquisitely “carefull upon the chanting of the voyce.” There was nothing sudden or shocking: everything proceeded evenly, smoothly, at a uniform, comfortable tempo, with little variation in volume or intensity, and the blend was lovely. And therein lies the rub.

The program was full of “crueltie, tyrannie, bitternesse,…weeping, sighes, sorrowes, sobbes,” and all the other “lamentable passions” that Morley spoke of, but virtually all of it came forth soft, warm, and creamy, like musical comfort-food—delicately prepared and elegantly presented, but comfort-food nonetheless. Given the texts, it should have required thoughtful chewing and still have been hard to swallow.

Perhaps the clearest case in point is “Why fumeth in fight,” one of the little “tunes” Tallis contributed to that psalter I mentioned. There is no possible ambiguity about what this piece is about or how it’s supposed to go: the music and the text—a versification of Psalm 2:1-2, which is also the source of Handel’s “Why do the heathen so furiously rage together?”—are put together for the explicit purpose of showing how the Phrygian mode “doth rage: and roughly brayth”; thus, this piece must not be allowed to sound just like the warm, sunny anthems on human and divine love that it followed, only microscopically louder. Given the state of the world these days—there was a large demonstration going on, quite audibly, in the streets outside the church—the rest of the piece (“Why taketh in hand the people fond, vayne thinges to bryng about?/The kynges aryse, the Lordes devyse, in counsayles met therto,/Agaynst the Lord wyth false accord, agaynst hys Christ they go.”) ought to have been hair-raising. Instead, it was as lovely as the rest.

There were two notable exceptions. In the one modern piece on the program—Andrew Smith’s To Mock Your Reign (2009), a mildly dissonant expansion of “Why fumeth in fight,” which it followed without pause—the group allowed itself exactly the kinds of word-painting and rhetorical license it eschewed in the Renaissance pieces, and everything briefly came alive, especially in the overlapping “infinem”s (“forever”) fading away at the end.  In the second, and longest, of the Tallis Lamentations, Jonathan Woody, one of the guest-artists, either got carried away with emotion, or was briefly brought to the fore by shifts in the larger texture; however it came about, his bold, apparently spontaneous coloring of key words having to do with exile, suffering, and guilt showed what might—and should—have been.


New York Polyphony in concert at Church of St. Mary the Virgin on Saturday, February 24, 2018, presented by Miller Theatre at Columbia University School of the Arts’ Early Music Series. New York Polyphony members: Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; and Craig Phillips, bass-baritone; with guest artists: Andrew Fuchs, tenor, and Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone.

TALLIS Audivi vocem de caelo

TALLIS Sancte Deus

TALLIS Hodie nobis caelorum

TALLIS Lamentations I

TALLIS If ye love me

TALLIS A new commandment

TALLIS Why fumeth in fight, from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter

ANDREW SMITH To Mock Your Reign

From Cantiones Sacrae (1575):

TALLIS In ieiunio et fletu

TALLIS O sacrum convivium

BYRD Da mihi auxilium

BYRD Miserere mihi, Domine

. . .

TALLIS Lamentations II


CHARLES WOOD Great Lord of Lords

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Cover: New York Polyphony (l. to r.): Craig Phillips (bass); Christopher Dylan Herbert (baritone); Steven Caldicott Wilson (tenor); Geoffrey Williams (countertenor); photo: Chris Owyoung.


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