Autumn has arrived. I am happy. Such a wonderful time of the year. Nature offers a spectacular show of colors. Heavy rain makes me feel comfortable, now that I sit in our kitchen, sipping a cup of tea and listening to John Taverner’s Mass “Western Wind”.
Western wind, when will thou blow:
The small rain down can rain;
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
Such a simple, almost profane text for a Roman-Catholic Mass? It doesn’t come as a surprise that Taverner was deemed to be flirting with Martin Luther’s revolutionary ideas about faith, liturgy and church music after he had moved to Oxford. Austerity as a principle of clerical life? A dangerous idea! However Taverner carried on and became the most famous composer of his time.
In this mass Taverner deploys the “Western Wind” tune twenty-one times in the treble voice, ten times in the tenor, five times in the bass, and never in the alto. “The many repetitions of the tune are embedded so deeply within inspired polyphonic composition that the repetitive nature provides musical coherence rather than boredom or irritation”, writes the conductor and music scholar Jeremy Summerly. “Indeed, the most inspired moment in the Mass occurs at the beginning of the Sanctus, where Taverner uses the same rising-scale motif five times over in the bass part while the ‘Western wind’ tune unfolds overhead.”
Working in Oxford
Taverner lived between 1490 and 1545. Little is known about his studies and his early career, but in 1526, Taverner became the first Organist and Master of the Choristers at the Cardinal’s College, the future Christ Church, in Oxford, appointed by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey fell from favour in 1529, and in 1530 Taverner left the college and returned to Lincolnshire, where he had grown up. He wrote the Mass “Western Wynde” most likely during his appointment at the Cardinal’s College.
“Taverner’s church music stands as on of the pinnacles of the Tudor tradition”, writes the Oxford Companion to Music. While the Mass “Western Wind” may be one of the smaller liturgical works, its unobtrusive solemnity makes it one of the more interesting works. The less decorum, the smaller the margin for compositional errors and bad taste. I find it a moving and comforting piece of music, well suited to make me feel at home. It has been recorded by the Taverner Choir & Players under Andrew Parrott.
© Charles Thibo