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Despite hazy origin, Taverner casts long shadow on English music

Bodleian Library/the University of Oxford

‘When the Sabbath had past,” the baritone intones; as Mark’s gospel continues — and the three Marys arrive at Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning — the other four voices bloom into a slow swirl of counterpoint, yielding an auroral glow of calm triads. So goes John Taverner’s five-voice motet “Dum transisset Sabbatum,” which the Boston Choral Ensemble will perform in its concerts on June 6, 7, and 13. The way the work influenced a certain kind of English choral sound mirrors the historical record of Taverner’s life: diffuse and, thereby, irresistibly suggestive.

Scant documentary evidence long warped Taverner’s biographical supply-and-demand curve. He was probably born in the eastern English county of Lincolnshire, though no record survives of where or when. His education and early career are likewise uncertain, but in 1526, Taverner landed a quite prestigious position: master of music at a new college founded by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII. The college (now Christ Church College, Oxford) also became an underground locus of Lutheran study — serious heresy in still-Catholic England. According to John Foxe’s 16th-century “Book of Martyrs,” Taverner was among the heretics, but “the Cardinall for hys Musicke excused hym.”


Soon after, Wolsey fell from power, England broke with Rome, and Taverner returned to Lincolnshire, apparently never holding another musical position. A marginal comment by Foxe — “This Tauerner repented hym very much that he had made songes to popishe ditties” — generated the notion that Taverner, expiating his Catholic employment, renounced music altogether; it was even suggested that he became a government agent, helping Henry and his Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell, dissolve England’s monasteries and convents. But the idea of Taverner’s anti-Catholic zealotry, however dramatic (it supplied the plot of Peter Maxwell Davies’s 1969 opera “Taverner”), is now considered fiction, and at least a couple of Taverner’s works can plausibly be dated to his later years. The rest of Taverner’s post-Oxford music was, most probably, simply lost.

Similarly, on paper, “Dum transisset Sabbatum” seemed to languish in obscurity: A score wasn’t published until 1782, and a modern edition didn’t appear until 1924. But the course of English choral music hints that the piece was influential indeed. Its sound ever after echoed in English traditions: in the sturdy vigor of Thomas Tallis and his Elizabethan colleagues, the opulence of Victorian cathedral music, the pastoral complexities of contemporary styles. Taverner’s biography wanders a political and historical fog; his music’s sunlight cast a long, sharp shadow.


The Boston Choral Ensemble, directed by Andrew Shenton, presents “Long, Long Night,” featuring music by the linked-across-the-centuries Johns Taverner and Tavener, as well as a world premiere by Balint Karosi, on June 6 at 8 p.m. at First Church, Cambridge; and on June 7 at 4 p.m. and June 13 at noon at Holy Cross Cathedral, Boston (prices vary; www.bostonchoral.org).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.