Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585)
Mass: Puer natus est nobis
Tallis’s seven-part Mass Puer natus est nobis is based upon the plainchant introit from the third Mass of Christmas, laid out as a long-note cantus firmus in the tenor part. The choice of a plainchant cantus firmus from the Mass rather than from the Office is most unusual, and this kind of treatment was archaic by the mid-sixteenth century. The choice of cantus firmus—‘A boy is born to us, and a son is given to us whose government shall be on his shoulders’—and its layout in the manner traditional in an English festal Mass would, however, make good sense if the work was
written for performance at Christmas 1554, when Queen Mary was widely believed to be expecting an heir. The unusual scoring for two altos, two tenors, baritone and two basses could suggest that Philip’s chapel choir, which evidently lacked trebles, took part in the performance. The Mass is written in a curious mixture of styles: the cantus firmus treatment is old-fashioned, but the vocal scoring maintains a uniformly full texture without the extended sections for reduced voices hitherto typical of English church music; and while the melismatic writing, vocal decoration and massive sonorities may recall the past, the economical imitative writing and development of short motives are thoroughly modern. Although three fragments from the Mass had been known for many years, it became performable only with the discovery of new manuscript sources about a generation ago. The
Gloria is now complete, and only a small amount of restoration is needed in the Sanctus and Agnus. The Credo, however, is still mostly missing; all that survives is four voices of the final section. In this recording the three complete movements are surrounded by the plainchant propers of the third Mass of Christmas, allowing us to hear the introit Puer natus before we encounter it as the cantus firmus of the polyphony. The Kyrie used to in the Mass comes from another source, but is well-suited to the following movements.