About this work
Perhaps no other composer of church music has ever faced as much liturgical tumult as Thomas Tallis. He began his career before the onset of the English Reformation, composing and playing organ for the Latin liturgy. He inherited a rich tradition of English church music as seen in the "Eton Choirbook." By the 1440s, however, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was consolidating the liturgy of the English church into English with his Book of Common Prayer. Tallis, thus, spent several years madly creating and adapting worship music in the vernacular. Then, under the reign of "Bloody Mary," his duties returned to the Latin Catholic rite. Finally, Queen Elizabeth stabilized the English kingdom politically, ushering in a new English "Renaissance" of William Byrd and Shakespeare. In this final period, Tallis apparently composed both Latin and English music in the new Elizabethan style, which liberally borrowed from the Continent but retained its own distinctive character. Tallis' five-voiced O nata lux de lumine most likely dates from this final period of his work, during Elizabeth's reign.
The intimate and prayerful text of O nata lux de lumine comes from an anonymous hymn from the tenth century. The hymn, in its full seven-verse glory, served the Office of Lauds during the morning of the Feast of the Transfiguration. Tallis chose to set only two verses from the hymn in his single through-composed work. He did retain, however, the mystical fervor of the feast. The Transfiguration recalls the moment in the Gospels when the disciples suddenly receive a vision of Jesus, shimmering with light and robed in angelic garb, conversing with the similarly radiant figures of Moses and Elijah. The fragment of Hymn text Tallis set opens with devoted invocation, and closes with the believer's prayer to be one with Christ's "blessed body" as seen in that vision. True to the text's mystical intensity, Tallis creates a passionate and harmonically vibrant setting. Superficially, O nata lux is mostly homophonic and chordal; the final passage repeats twice, a common Tallis gambit. Yet the harmonic language bristles with "cross relations," rapid juxtapositions of chromatically opposite notes such as F and F sharp. The very last cadence of the motet presents the most famous and pungent dissonance in all English music. One voice moves to F sharp right at the same time a second sings F natural; the second then moves to E flat, another shocking dissonance with the bass D. The mystical union with Christ's body is not painless.