New York Polyphony gracefully surveys Mary Tudor era at Gardner Museum

September 19, 2022 at 10:48 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

“Mary I, Queen of England” by Antonis Mor and Workshop, c.1576. Photo: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

In a corner gallery on the second floor of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hangs a portrait of Mary Tudor. Painted by Antonis Mor around 1554, it reveals the complexities of the English queen, with her icy gaze conveying the seriousness of her position. Yet the dark, reddish background invokes her ominous nickname—“Bloody Mary.”

Historians and laypersons alike tend to agree on the legacy of the only daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Though many saw Mary as a defender of the Catholic faith, the violence she wrought upon Protestant dissidents brought England to the brink of civil war. Her stern countenance, preserved in Mor’s portrait, seems an eternal reminder of steadfast—and disastrous—religious politics.

But the vocal quartet New York Polyphony reexamined Mary’s role in contemporary musical life through a program of works written or resurrected during her reign. Performed in the Gardner Museum’s courtyard Sunday afternoon, the season-opening concert sought to recast Mary in more humanistic terms as a patron of the arts.

More an immersive experience than a traditional concert, Sunday’s event invited listeners to wander the nearby galleries between performances. Viewing Mary’s portrait in the museum’s Dutch Room, where some of this program was experienced, provided a sobering reminder of the realities behind the laudatory tones captured in works preserved in two contemporary manuscripts.

The Gyffard Partbooks, compiled during Mary’s reign, comprises Latin-texted works by several composers little remembered today. Yet its chief contributor was Thomas Tallis, who walked a fraught political tightrope during a career that stretched from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I.

Tallis’s In pace was composed for liturgical use. But its rich counterpoint reflects the decorative style that Mary, herself well-trained in music, had championed. On Sunday’s performance, the singers found a sonorous blend to realize its grand spiritual depths.

New York Polyphony performed Sunday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff

John Blitheman, who joined the Chapel Royal during Mary’s reign, set the same text in less intricate fashion. Yet New York Polyphony’s pristine tones brought the score’s subtle dissonances to light, each line glistening like light on water.

The life of Christopher Hoskins has been lost to history. But his Speciosa facta es bears an elegant melodic style, even by contemporary standards. Sunday’s reading was a showcase for countertenor Geoffrey Williams, who sung florid lines over sturdy lower voices.

Throughout the afternoon, the courtyard’s vibrant acoustic made each work sound fuller that what appears on paper. And while William Mundy’s chant-like Kyrie cunctipotens genitor only fleetingly flowered into lush harmonies, the singers made every phrase ring.

They did the same with Robert Barber’s Dum transisset sabbatum, where undulating phrases came to rest in ear-tickling harmonies. The singers found firm resolution in the cascading “Alleluias” that conclude this little-heard masterpiece.

Two anonymous works also displayed the ensemble’s subtleties. Tu es Petrus unfolded like a vibrant tapestry as the singers vividly shaped each section. Craig Phillips’s cavernous bass set a mournful tone in Te Deum Laudamus. Soft but assured, each voice entered the fray, with crescendos highlighting multiple dimensions straight to the reverential cadences.

Works from the Eton Choirbook were just as affecting.

Compiled for use at Eton College during the reign of Henry VII, this manuscript was revived when Mary became Queen in 1553. New York Polyphony offered works by two of its contributors, Walter Lambe and John Browne.

Written well before Mary’s reign, Lambe’s Ascendit Christus reflects the lush, polyphonic style that came to dominate English music. The singers rendered its long melismas with flair.

John Browne’s Stabat Virgo Mater Christi relays the Virgin Mary’s sorrow over the crucifixion of Jesus. But Sunday’s vivid reading suggested Queen Mary, who wished but failed to become a mother, as a poignant subtext.

The singers made every detail of the score unfold naturally. Long lines coalesced in bright harmonies, recalling Palestrina in sonic heft. Brief duets for the upper voices shimmered before the full ensemble revealed the mystery of the closing bars.

A brief encore of William Mundy’s Exsurge Christe offered a final prayer for hope.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum will present the Olmsted Quartet in music by Bologne, Schubert, and Müller-Hermann 1:30 p.m. at Calderwood Hall.

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