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Salve intemerata

Tallis: Salve Intermerata

The challenge of setting the Salve intemerata text to music must surely have seemed daunting to a composer of Tallis’s generation. Being in prose, it did not provide a stanzaic structure or rhyme scheme that the composer incorporate into his musical construction; being verbose and rhetorical, it demanded a musical setting that was both concise and imposing; being intricate and carefully argued, it required music that would both clarify and adorn. Tallis’s achievement in meeting the challenge is astonishing. The music is just as closely argued as the text, and is patently designed to suit its rhetorical purpose. Two compositional techniques—imitation and motivic writing—make an especially significant contribution to this compelling musical argument. Imitation, involving the passing of musical ideas from one voice to another, creates the impression of a topic being argued out by a group of people; it is noteworthy how Tallis tends to make all the voices except the imitating voice melismatic, so that the texted voice carries even more effectively through the texture. Motivic writing, which entails the generation of melodic lines out of constantly re-used and subtly varied components, creates the impression of a developing train of thought, highly appropriate to the character of the text being set. The suggestion by some commentators that in Salve intemerata Tallis is too disciplined and single-minded, too earnest about demonstrating his abilities, underestimates the cogency of this massive work, and its significance for Tallis’s own musical development. If the forty-part motet Spem in alium was to be Tallis’s musical Everest, Salve intemerata was his Matterhorn.

Nick Sandon,10th December 1998

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