Tallis And The Mystery Of The Primes

I was recently sight-reading at the keyboard through the opening section of Tallis’s Lamentations Of Jeremiah – the second of his two settings. Together they are among his most enduring works: mysterious, sonorous, richly expressive. Both are full of marvels, and one, I think, is this opening section. It’s based on simple rising minor scale figures, but I’ve always found it so compelling. I was curious to get a sense of how he does it.

Then I noticed something. My old OUP edition puts the music into bars of 4/2. But the staggered imitative entries in this piece keep arriving a beat later in each bar. Of course, I had never bothered to count it before, but the point of imitation comes after five beats every time. The rising minor scale figure is heard ten times in this way, before the end of the section.

Effectively then, is this music in 5/2? It seems counter-intuitive for old music to use such an irregular metre. For a quick comparison I flicked through a book of Bach fugues, and all the entries came in the same points in the bars, with a throughly reasonable regularity. But of course Bach’s world was a later one, with its own Baroque aesthetic.

I can see why 4/2 makes a certain amount of sense here – the shape of the rising scale figure is four beats long, which the ear immediately understands. And this, I think, is part of the magic of this passage, why something apparently so simple becomes so compelling. The contour of the theme invokes our learned bias towards the powers of two, with their neat sub-divisions. But the underlying structure is ticking over on an unusual prime number – five – with all its irreducibility and various mystical connotations.

This puts me in mind of a fact I recently learned. Regular pentagons don’t tessellate – although there are some clever and beautiful ways to make irregular ones lie together. The strictly regular irregularity of this passage has something of the same quality. It fits together neatly, but not in the way we’d expect.

I’ve written before about how Lamentations settings of the Renaissance used alienation effects that put this ancient text at a step of distance. They often retained the old Hebrew letter names from its original alphabet acrostic form, setting them as effectively instrumental passages on an opaque symbol. Likewise this opening section of Tallis is actually a title – the words are announcing what the following text is. So a certain degree of strangeness seems to be part of the point.

I’ll certainly keep sight-reading through this wonderful music, and see what other intrigues it has to offer.

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