Brother Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
RCL - Easter 6 A - Sunday 27 April 2008
1 Peter 3:13-22
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In my mind this is one of the most sublimely beautiful passages in all scripture.
The reason I love this text so much has less to do with the text and more to do with the way Thomas Tallis created a musical setting of this text.
A little history - Thomas Tallis is one of the greatest composers England has given to the world - and that is saying a lot. But Tallis also had the wonderful and terrible timing to be born in the reign of Henry the VII. He was an exact contemporary of Thomas Cranmer and Henry VIII. In other words, he was the finest living composer of his day, and his day was the English Reformation.
Tallis was a scholar and musician who worked in powerful monastic houses. He had it made. He had the time and resources to perfect his craft. He never had to worry about where his next meal would come from. He could just compose and make music.
And then things changed. Henry VIII, King of England, began the process of remaking the church in England into the Church of England. It was a complicated and frequently bloody process that, among other things, included the dissolving of the monasteries. Sorry Mr. Tallis - you need a new job and a new home.
Henry gave way to Edward, a radical protestant. Edward gave way to Mary, a devout Roman Catholic. And Mary gave way to Elizabeth who some would argue was the first actual Anglican monarch to head the Church of England.
And through this, Thomas Tallis kept composing. That he survived at all and died a natural death is an achievement. As the monarch changed, so did the relationship between head and body for many in Church.
Tallis didn’t survive by staying at the fringes with his head down, or by keeping near the middle of the road with no particular conviction. Partly he survived because he was willing compromise - Edward wants this... I’ll can do this... Mary wants that... I can do that. But mostly he survived, I believe, because he was truly an inspired genius. Keep the word “inspired” in the back of your mind because I’m going to come back to it. It is the entire point of this sermon.
Among Tallis’s works are some of the finest examples of late Renaissance polyphony that can be found. His music is as lavishly rich and wonderfully florid as any being written in Rome. He stands up well next to Gabrieli and Palestrina - also his contemporaries.
But the English reformation placed an unusual demand on composers. Thomas Cranmer had a strong conviction that the highly florid, melismatic writing popular in the Church was un-Godly. For Cranmer, understanding the words was essential. Worship in a language “understanded of the people” was, after all, an article of religion.
Those utterly beautiful, other-worldly stretches late Renaissance polyphony where one syllable of one word can stretch on for a page or two, may have pleased the ear, but the text was utterly lost in a wash of sound; Unacceptable to Thomas Cranmer, so he devised a standard which Henry issued in a proclamation - in church music there would be, so near as possible, one note for every syllable and one syllable for every note.
Goodbye florid polyphony.
Thomas Tallis not only needed a new job and a new home, he had to master an entirely new style. He could only compose as many notes as there were syllables in his text... This, I suppose, is like restricting a poet to only the vocabulary found in the daily papers; or restricting a painter to only primary colors. Congratulations Mr Da Vinci - here is your new studio. And here is the box of Crayola crayons that you will be allowed to use - please stay within the lines and don’t let any of the colors run together... create masterpieces... any questions?
“If you love me you will keep my commandments. I will pray the Father and he will give you another Counselor, even the spirit of truth.”
Thomas Tallis was inspired - that is to say filled with the Spirit. His music testifies to that. It is this Spirit that allowed Thomas Tallis not only to survive, but to create exquisite works of beauty, works that reflect in their own way the beauty of God.
When Thomas Tallis set this Gospel text to music he created what has often been described as the most perfect English anthem - simple almost to the point of being stark, yet transcendent. Moreover, he followed the King’s proclamation - there is, so much as possible, only one note per syllable, one syllable per note. When you hear the anthem, you hear the Gospel. Nothing standing in front or beside or behind.
So why, other than the fact that I really love the music of Thomas Tallis, am I going on about this...
Mircea Elliade in his book The Sacred and the Profane argues that manifestations of the sacred are the basis of meaning in our world. When we see the gentle rain watering the earth, we see it as a manifestation of God, as God’s sacred involvement in creation. The profane world lacks this meaning. It just sees rain... just a natural process.
The secular person cannot see the sacred. The secular person might find a flower quite beautiful, but the spiritual person, the poet Christopher Smart for example, sees flowers as the peculiar poetry of Christ. The secular person sees the profane and the Godly person sees the sacred - though they are looking at the same thing.
“Even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot see or know...” The sacred is not visible to the secular.
We are not secular people. We are children of God. We abide with the Spirit of Truth.
Our challenge, our calling is to take that vision of the Spirit with us into daily life - to bring transcendence to the mundane, the earthbound. For we can have no doubt about God’s commands - We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and body and mind and spirit; and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Its not enough to see the peculiar poetry of Christ - we have to live it.
For some of us, as I have talked about Tallis’s anthem, it has been ringing in our ears. But others will be unfamiliar with it. So I want to conclude today by letting it speak for itself.