“You can really tell if it’s Byrd or Tallis from the first few bars?”
H. likes some Early and 16th Century music, but is more of a Romantic and 20th Century man. He likes passion in music. I like post-white-ruff composers but need serenity and the reassurance that the world makes sense. So we meet in the middle, at J.S. Bach.
I know that, sooner or later, he will test me. My eyes dart around the room and I chew on the inside of my cheek. “Yes,” I finally reply.
It takes six months. Then, one day, he remembers and pulls out a couple of CDs from the shelf. I sit on the sofa, ready for my aural exam, somewhat anxious I’m about to fall flat on my face in a sticky puddle of embarrassment.
He plays the first few seconds of eleven separate pieces.
“Byrd. Byrd. Tallis. Byrd.” I get ten of them right, even though I can’t actually name the pieces.
H. gives me an enquiring look. I’ve never had to explain it before, and I realise that, as I try, I lack the fundamental music terminology to express my thoughts. My ears seem to know but the road between them and my mouth hasn’t been built yet.
Thomas Tallis is harder, I start saying. Like a white light, a moonbeam. William Byrd is gentler, with copper and gold tones. Tallis is like white stone – limestone – cool to the touch. Byrd is like timber – like mahogany – smooth, with a warm red sheen to it.
Then, in Tallis, there’s that straight line, can you hear it? (H. looks at me with good-humoured amusement.) There’s always that very straight, constant line, like a laser beam, running through the music, and all the rest rises and falls around that constant, ever-present, blindingly white line, whereas in Byrd, it’s like bursts of deep reds, browns, burnt sienna and maybe a hint of forest green.
Tallis is a glorious, glamorous display of music as architecture. His music bounces off stone fan vaulting and flies across the ether. Byrd is more intimate, more wistful, a caress.
There is daring and confidence in Tallis. There is hope in William Byrd.