Take two minutes for a music history lesson today.
If you’re looking for something to be thankful for this on this Thanksgiving Day beyond the custom of family, friends, and turkey dinner, why not invite your young students to give thanks for the life of Thomas Tallis, the great master of early English polyphony, who died on this November day in 1585.
Polyphonic music is the music of many voices. Unlike earlier styles of Western music such as Gregorian Chant, where all the singers follow the same vocal line, polyphonic music assigns different vocal lines to different singers — it is composed of “two or more independent melodic parts sounded together,” as your River Houses dictionary says.
Here are three versions of Thomas Tallis’s magnificent polyphonic “If ye love me,” a work based on a text from the New Testament Gospel of John (14:15–17), where Jesus tells his disciples: “If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth.” Note how the voices are aligned together at the beginning, and then move apart and circle around each other like dancers, and then at the end come back into perfect alignment.
First, sung by the professional choral group The Cambridge Singers, with the musical score showing the four vocal lines (clicking in the lower right will open the video up to full screen and make it easier to follow along):
Second, sung by the casually dressed Ensemble D.E.U.M. with the minimal complement of four singers, making it easy for students to see how each person is following a different vocal line:
Finally, sung in its natural habitat by a full choir, at a 2010 ecumenical service in Westminster Abbey, London, featuring Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams:
So turn up the volume on Thomas Tallis for your students today, and be thankful that we live in a world that has had such people in it.
❡ A thousand educational opportunities are possible with a magnificent piece of music like this. If you have a musical household, you can get the sheet music directly from ChoralWiki. If your student is a budding musicologist, polyphony is a very rich and complex subject that music historians have written about extensively — a perfect topic to research on your next visit to the library. And if you are in the midst of studying grammar, you can point out how Tallis employs special poetic contractions in the text — ’bide, e’en and the unusual monosyllabic spir’t — to align the words with the meter of his music.