Taverner's 'Missa Corona Spinea' ('Crown of Thorns Mass') is one of three festal masses that he is known to have composed – the other two are Gloria tibi Trinitas,and O Michael. Each of Taverner's three festal Masses is constructed over a cantus firmus, that is they are constructed over a pre-existing melody used as the basis for their (polyphonic) composition. And each is scored for six-part choir including the high trebles so characteristic of late medieval and renaissance English music. Taken together they represent a crowning moment in Tudor period music and a high point in the development of the English festal Mass.
Note: This is the first posting in a series of three dealing with Taverner's festal Masses. The remaining two postings will be posted on Sunday February 26th 2012 and Sunday March 4th 2012.
Nobody quite knows for which occasion Taverner composed 'Missa Corona Spinea'. Its title might lead the twenty first century observer to believe that it is connected with the Feast of the Crown of Thorns but such an assumption is difficult to sustain in the face of the facts that:
- It's the longest of Taverner’s settings and is clearly intended for an elaborate ceremony involving a large choir.
- The choir would have to include boys of exceptional skill – particularly given the consistently florid writing for trebles.
- The Feast of the Crown of Thorns was considered to be of only minor importance in the Sarum calendar.
It's unlikely therefore that it was written for the Feast of the Crown of Thorns. There are other scholarly difficulties associated with this Mass – one of them being that nobody knows the source of the cantus firmus used by Taverner to provide the Mass' structure, another is that nobody knows for sure when it was composed. It doesn't appear in the part-books compiled for use at Cardinal College in the late 1520s so it's reasonable to suppose that it was probably composed sometime after that decade.
Structurally 'Missa Corona Spinea' is typically English in consisting of only four movements:
- Movement 1: Gloria
- Movement 2: Credo
- Movement 3: Sanctus and Benedictus
- Movement 4: Agnus Dei (I & II)
This structure came about because in the Sarum rite – the rite most widely used in England before Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the Kyrie was performed as 'troped plainchant' that is it was performed with extra words added these words being varied by the season. The movements are more or less the same length with the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei containing rather more melismatic writing than either the Gloria or the Credo. (Another typically English feature of 'Missa Corona Spinea's ' structure is the abbreviated Credo).
This is a Mass I come back to time and time again. I admire how Taverner uses the cantus firmus (tenor) as the foundation for both the shifting full sections and the reduced-voice passages while the duets and trios are, to my mind, among his best work, they remind me of Josquin for some reason. I also admire and enjoy how he exploits the range between the top and bottom parts, for his time his use of this technique for example at 'Et expecto' during the Credo and at the start of the Agnus Dei I was spectacular, still is spectacular in fact. While his division of the trebles in the Benedictus takes my breath away.
You'll find a playlist with the complete Mass and its separate movements together with the text and an English translation below the fold. The singers are The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers. Enjoy :-).
Click here to listen to the music and read the rest of the posting ...