New Classical Tracks: Times go by Turns

by Valerie Kahler, Minnesota Public Radio
September 25, 2013
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ST. PAUL, Minn. —

THE loppèd tree in time may grow again,
Most naked plants renew both fruit and flower;
The sorest wight may find release of pain,
The driest soil suck in some moist'ning shower;
Times go by turns and chances change by course;
From foul to fair, from better hap to worse.

The opening stanza of "Times go by Turns," a poem by Robert Southwell, gracefully expresses all that is painful and beautiful about life and death, and the transitions from one to another. It was the inspiration for the title of the newest album, Times Go By Turns, from men's vocal quartet New York Polyphony.

Geoffrey Williams, countertenor with the New York Polyphony:

"Polyphony literally means 'many sounds,' but it's essentially the interplay of individual lines that come together in perfect unity."

"Perfect unity" is an apt description of this group. The clarion voices of the singers enable each part to stand on its own in what can be a complicated tangle of polyphonic writing; alternatively, the singers can seamlessly combine their voices to create a remarkable and completely enveloping quilt of sound.

For a men's early music quartet, the mass for four voices is core repertoire. The Masses for Four Voices by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd are two of the most significant examples of this type of repertoire.

It's important to understand that when these composers were writing, England had split from the Catholic Church. As you can imagine, this put a bit of pressure on composers who made their living writing music both for both the church and royalty.

The newly formed Anglican Church kept many of the liturgical elements of the Big-C Catholic mass, including the creed, which acknowledges "the one catholic church." (That little-c catholic refers to the all-embracing church.)

Williams: "I think the Credo is the central piece of Byrd's mass. There's so much that's both personal and political in the way that he sets this statement of faith. I think it's both passionate, and at the same time there's almost a 'church militant' attitude. He goes from very busy contrapuntal moments to straight-up homophony when he gets to talking about the unified Catholic church. Which is not just an accident. It's clear that he has an ulterior motive there."

It's very interesting to hear three composers' interpretations of the Mass — the same texts, the same order, but quite a difference in style. The Byrd is ethereal...and the Tallis, much earthier.

Williams: "He [Tallis] has been influenced by the vernacular language that's being imposed. Instead of 'sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,' it could just as easily be sung 'holy, holy holy.' There is a hymn-like structure to it."

And the John Plummer setting?

Williams: "I think if anything, there's a cockiness to it..."

Craig Phillips, bass-baritone with the New York Polyphony:

"Yeah, there's a freedom you can hear. It's really kind of almost comical in places, you can see that there's a real sense of humor in some of his writing. So we had to be careful, because that was a piece that we could really allow to get raucous. That was one that we always had to keep one foot in our sacred world and maybe spin out a bit into something that you'd hear more in the secular music of the time."
Another interesting difference: the first section of the mass is always a Kyrie — except when it's not. Thomas Tallis just didn't include one. So New York Polyphony had the idea to have their colleague Andrew Smith step into the breach.

Phillips: "We intended it to take the place of the Tallis Kyrie that doesn't exist. As much as we can, we like to inject modern color into early music — which is our core repertoire, and he just he has a way — kind of 'neo-medievalist,' we say. His music grows out of a chant tradition, so it seemed a very natural fit."

Although it has nothing to do with the mass, Richard Rodney Bennett's setting of "A Colloquy with God" is also a very natural fit. It was one of Bennett's last compositions, written shortly before his death in December 2012.

Williams: "It seemed like this was such a personal text as far as Sir Richard was concerned."

Phillips: "It was extremely personal. You read this poem, and you think of this man at the end of his life and it's really affecting. At the time we recorded it, I knew we'd captured something really special."

Sleep is a death. Oh, make me try
By sleeping, what is it to die!
And as gently lay my head
On my grave, as now my bed.
Howe'er I rest, great God, let me
Awake again at last with Thee!

(excerpt from "Evening Hymn" by Sir Thomas Browne)

Times go by Turns, by New York Polyphony is a collection of poignant texts that, in one way or another, enable you to hover between two worlds and relish those moments of transition.

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