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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

24. John Taverner's
44-part motet,
'The Cryes of London'


The rivalry between John Taverner and Thomas Tallis was longstanding and often bitter. It prompted much comment, as this extract from a contemporary poem (attributed to Skelton) reveals:


...Meanwhile, in an ante-chamber,
Stealthily, with gleeful malice,
Taverner with tallow candle
Blots the notes of Thomas Tallis...

Skelton was probably referring to the occasion when Taverner's 'Westron Wynde' Mass was chosen for royal performance in preference to Tallis's 4-part Mass. Tallis, in a fit of spite, ruined the performance by continually singing wrong notes, and in retaliation Taverner vandalised the MS. of Tallis's Lamentations, as described above. A temporary truce followed, but the sore continued to fester beneath the surface, finally coming to a head when Tallis achieved such acclaim for his 40-part motet, 'Spem in Alium'. Taverner, determined to outdo his rival, devised a cunning plan: he would not only write a work for even larger forces, but would also set a text never as yet attempted. Thus came into being the 44-part motet, 'The Cryes of London'.

The text consisted of a collage of street vendors' cries that he'd noted down in the London streets - greengrocers selling their wares, a man reporting the loss of his old grey mare, the pathetic cries of street beggars, framed by the night-watchman calling out the passing hours. The 44 singers were disposed in eleven choirs, each of four voices. Every inch of the local playhouse hired by Taverner was filled; singers were everywhere: in the balconies, perched on ledges, some even hanging from the rafters, leaving little room for the audience. Nevertheless the performance caused a great stir, particularly as Henry VIII and his current wife were invited. Even Tallis was unable to keep away, secreting himself inside a garderobe. Everything was going well until, half way through 'Fresh oysters!', tragedy struck: the tiny left-stage balcony high up in the rafters holding Choir 9, collapsed, killing all the singers as well as several members of the audience. Even more disastrous was the ensuing fire, when tallow candles set light to some drapery, completely gutting the building. Henry, who only just escaped with his life, was incensed. He immediately revoked Taverner's licence to compose music and, by way of punishment, sent him to help Thomas Cromwell dissolve the monasteries. Taverner never wrote another note of music. On the other hand, Tallis never looked back ...


Copyright © 26 October 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK



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