Tallis versus Byrd – when you lack the appropriate vocabulary

“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.

Scribe Doll

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22 Responses to Tallis versus Byrd – when you lack the appropriate vocabulary

  1. dechareli says:

    Wow! I am truly impressed and will see over the next weeks if I can hear the differences you write about. And it looks like there is a first serious contender for that bottle of wine I will give away next week in the context of a musical riddle. Polling on Twitter!

    • Scribe Doll says:

      Thank you – glad you liked it. BBC Radio 3 have a musical brain teaser every morning 9.30-10. I sometimes respond. Brightens up a morning of intense translating to hear my name read out on the radio :–)

  2. Liz Stanford says:

    Well, you may lack the technical jargon but your description of how you see Tallis and Byrd’s music is quite lyrical. It means I shall take myself off to listen to both now!

  3. Hi, Katia! I hope you won’t find my reactions to the YouTube videos amazingly conventional! To me, the Tallis was full and resonant, but I saw it as a deep, sad red or reddish-maroon, perhaps because I knew ahead of time that it was a “Lamentation.” By contrast, I found the Byrd “Mass for Five Voices” thinner (in tone), lighter, and happier, and full of higher-pitched voices. Maybe it was the angel’s picture on the video, but this later one seemed to me to be ice-blue, even a little pleasantly frigid, like a breath of cold air after coming out of an overheated building. I couldn’t say which of the two, Tallis or Byrd, I liked best, but I found them both quite remarkable and lovely. Thank you again, even more now that I have heard them.

  4. Sue Cumisky says:

    Beautiful and Excellent.
    They mirror their times. It must have been a knife edge existence working in harmony between the faiths, keeping your family safe, having to be careful which traditions were allowed. Their music was sublime and in the circumstances, miraculous. Your words do them justice but even so, they soar beyond them.

  5. Christine Hartelt says:

    Beautifully written!

  6. evanatiello says:

    You amaze me, Katia!

  7. Yes, exactly. Beautifully said!

  8. Anne Born says:

    I’ve sung them all and Byrd – to me at least – is the most challenging.

  9. Well, you certainly have the advantage of me: I’m not familiar with either of those two composers, Tallis or Byrd. I do know what it’s like not to have the vocabulary, though. I started out with a good bit of musical training as a child and young adult, but when I left home, I stopped being trained in music, and listened to a lot of popular stuff instead, because those around me were doing so. I do love opera still, though, in spite of the fact that I can’t discuss it intelligently. I guess there’s love, and then there’s love. But I adore your descriptions of the two composers, and think it’s emotional tone paintings and etc. like this that music should remind you of, at its best. Kudos!

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