Take ten minutes this week for a lovely homeschool lesson in music history.
If you’re looking for something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving week beyond the custom of family, friends, and turkey dinner, why not invite your students to give thanks for the life of Thomas Tallis, the grand master of early polyphonic music, who died on this November day in 1585. (He was born about 1505 on a date unknown.)
Poly-phonic 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’s composed of “two or more independent melodic parts sounded together,” as your River Houses dictionary says.
Here are three versions of Thomas Tallis’s ethereal two-minute polyphonic anthem “If Ye Love Me,” a religious work based on a text from the New Testament (John 14:15–17) in which 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.” In Tallis’ composition, note how the voices are aligned together at the beginning, and then move apart and circle around each other like dancers, and then come back again into perfect alignment at the end.
First, a version 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, a version by the group New York Polyphony (performing in Sweden) with the minimal complement of four singers, making it easy for students to understand how each person is following a different vocal line — and to see how amazing it is that such a complex sound can be made by just four people with no instruments:
Finally, a version of the piece sung in its “natural habitat” by a full choir, at a 2010 ecumenical service in Westminster Abbey in London, featuring Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams:
So during this Thanksgiving week, why not turn up the volume on Thomas Tallis for your students and invite them to be thankful that we live in a world that has had such people in it.
What musical discoveries have you made in your homeschool this Cygnus Term? 😊
❡ Little lessons: A hundred little educational lessons 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 you have a budding musicologist, polyphony is a very rich and complex subject that music historians have written about extensively — it’s a perfect topic to research on your next visit to the library. And if you are in the midst of studying grammar or poetry, you can point out how Tallis employs special poetic contractions in the text — ’bide (abide), e’en (even), and the unusual monosyllabic spir’t (spirit) — to align the words with the meter of his music. 🎵
❡ Explore more: Your River Houses history encyclopedia has a beautifully illustrated overview of the Elizabethan period, within which Tallis did much of his work, on pages 260–261. It’s just the background you need to teach a quick homeschool history lesson. 📚
❡ Lift every voice: This is one of our occasional posts on Homeschool Arts & Music. Add your name to our weekly mailing list and get great homeschool teaching ideas delivered right to your mailbox all through the year. 🗞
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