Tallis: Mass for four voices
Tallis's Mass for four voices exemplifies a kind of concise Mass setting that
seems to have gained some popularity in the last ten or twelve years of Henry's reign.
Surviving examples of this type are quite diverse—some are for five voices and others
are for four, some are relatively ornate while others are very plain, and some are freely
composed whereas others are derived from existing compositions—but they share the
lack of a plainchant cantus firmus that would connect them with a particular feast.
As usual in English Masses, Tallis sets the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus. The
word-setting in the first two movements is almost entirely syllabic, and since the texture
is frequently homophonic the words can be heard with great clarity. It is interesting that
in the Sanctus and Agnus, which of course have much shorter texts than the Gloria and
Credo, Tallis achieves sufficient dimensions more through text repetition than through
melismatic writing. Given that he is working with only four voices and writing in a very
restrained style, Tallis creates a remarkably strong sense of variety. The polished
craftsmanship reminds one of his Missa Salve intemerata, with which this Mass may
be roughly contemporary.
Nick Sandon, 15 June 1997