Since founding the a cappella group Pomerium some 40 years ago, Alexander Blachly has made it a driving force for performances of Renaissance polyphony — and for innovative, hands-on scholarship as well. Lately, Blachly has been exploring music from the short but action-packed reign of Mary Tudor — who ruled England from 1553 to 1558 — and on Sunday afternoon, Pomerium brought the results to the Phillips Collection for a performance as intriguing as it was beautiful.
Mary, you may recall, briefly restored Catholicism to England, and it was no picnic — her suppression of Protestants won her the sobriquet “Bloody Mary.” But a happier result was the flowering of some of the most remarkable music of the time.
English composers were encouraged to write complex polyphony based on Gregorian chant, which was associated with Catholicism and thus banned under Mary’s predecessors. Using the chains of long, equal notes that are characteristic of chant as a base, these composers wove them into musical tapestries of astonishing ingenuity and depth, and created what may be Mary’s most enduring legacy.
Even to these decidedly secular ears, it was a profound pleasure to bask in Sunday’s performance. Pomerium takes a pure, historically informed approach, and its razor-sharp ensemble work made the intricate polyphony virtually translucent.
But there was more to the afternoon than scholarship and fine technique. Alternating works by Christopher Tye, William Byrd, John Sheppard, Thomas Tallis and Robert White, Blachly led his 10 singers through an hour of music that was sublime. There was a sense of unbounded vastness and luminous beauty in virtually every work, a kind of magnificent unstoppable power that soared above human trivialities.
In our navel-gazing, self-absorbed age, it seemed nothing less than exalting. By the end of Tallis’s magnificent “Agnus Dei, Missa Puer natus est,” you had the sense that the Phillips Collection’s music room had been transformed, if just for an hour, into a vast cathedral, awash in celestial light.
Brookes is a freelance writer.