Music Notes for Easter Sunday — March 31, 2024

Dum transisset Sabbatum – John Taverner (c. 1490-1545)

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In 1526, John Taverner became the first Informator Choristarum at Cardinal College, Oxford, newly founded by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and now known as Christ Church. Indeed, Taverner founded the College Choir itself that year. Most of Taverner’s works were settings of Latin texts from services of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. At the start of his career, plainsong was the most common liturgical music; polyphony was employed relatively little, being used to highlight texts and occasions of special significance. Hugh Benham has explained that initially:

Taverner, like earlier composers, supplied polyphony only for sections that the liturgy allotted to soloists [… however,] when he set the choral parts of Dum transisset Sabbatum, a respond apparently without a history of polyphonic treatment, he was belatedly acknowledging that polyphony now belonged to choirs at least as much as to soloists.

Younger composers like Tallis and Sheppard followed Taverner’s example.

The text of Dum transisset Sabbatum, this morning’s communion motet, was prescribed to be sung every day of Easter Week and on the first six Sundays of Easter. Taken from the Gospel of Mark, it sets the scene of the women going early in the morning to Jesus’ tomb. Taverner’s rendering here is a sumptuous five-part texture, at once jubilant and serene.

And when the sabbath was past,
Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome,
had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint Jesus. Alleluia.

And very early in the morning the first day of the week,
they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

Gerald Harder