Seven questions about sacred polyphony with Doug Fullington

by Kevin Birnbaum

Doug Fullington, front and center, with the Tudor Choir. Photo by Jesson Mata.

There is nothing in this world quite like the sound of fifteen human voices combining to produce the soaring melodic lines and lush harmonies of Renaissance sacred polyphony, some of the most beautiful, soul-stirring music ever written.

And there are very few choirs that can match the quality of the Seattle-based Tudor Choir, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary season this year.

Doug Fullington is the founder and director of the internationally acclaimed choir, which just released its seventh CD, O splendor gloriae: Sacred Music of Tudor England (also available as an mp3 download). The CD features the unaccompanied choral music of John Sheppard, John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, and William Byrd, and it is glorious. (You can listen to the first track free here.)

Doug is a specialist in the music of Tudor England and early American music, has sung as a countertenor with the London-based Tallis Scholars, and is the composer of some truly beautiful music, including a remarkable series of seven a cappella psalm settings for the Easter Vigil Mass.

Doug is also just about the nicest, most generous guy you could meet, and I’m lucky to call him a friend. He agreed to answer seven questions for the candle about the Tudor Choir’s new CD, and the beauty and power of sacred polyphony.

1. What is it about the sacred music of Tudor England that draws you to it?
English polyphony was among the first Renaissance works I was exposed to at a time when I was becoming very interested in choral music. I love the sweeping quality of the melodies, and I love the harmonies the English used that were unique to them. Context plays a big part as well. That such beautiful music was composed during a century of intense religious, political, and social turmoil is very moving to me.

2. The music on this CD was all written between four and five hundred years ago. Why should we still care about it?
The texts of the music on the CD deal with profound and eternal subjects. For me, the music creates a sort of panoramic sound world enhancing contemplation of these truths. But for any listener, the beauty of the unaccompanied music itself can be transcendent.

3. In the liner notes, you describe John Sheppard’s settings of the prayer Libera nos, salva nos as “magical.” What is it about some music that gives it that magical quality?
Music that produces satisfaction in the listener by its seemingly perfect inevitability or, in other cases, its surprising shifts and twists can be “magical” for that listener. I suppose the term “magical” is very subjective. Here, Sheppard placed the chant melody of “Libera nos” in the bass voice and over it composed six lines of polyphony. These weave in and out of each other, rising and falling, and together create an extraordinary harmonic web that is completely satisfying to my ear. Knowing this prayer was recited upon waking and sleeping at Magdalen College, Oxford, during Sheppard’s years creates an immediacy that enhances the “magical” quality I hear.

4. What has been your most thrilling or satisfying musical experience?
This is a tough question because I’ve been blessed to enjoy many thrilling and satisfying musical experiences. To name one, I will cite touring the U.S. with the Tallis Scholars in December 2000. To be part of this renowned group was a thrill and singing with them deeply satisfying.

5. What role do art and beauty play in your faith and spiritual life?
Art and beauty play an enormous role in my faith and spiritual life. They serve to give visual and aural expression to what is in my heart and mind, whether it is art I’ve created myself or another’s art that uplifts me and assists in my understanding of God and His creation. Art and beauty, particularly in the form of music, have provided great solace for me throughout my life.

6. Who are a few of your favorite artists, both historical and contemporary, and why?
I’m going to limit myself to composers here. I’m in awe of John Taverner (English, c.1490-1545), about whom we know very little, for the incredible lyricism of his music. I respect William Byrd (English, 1540-1623) immensely for his commitment to his Catholic faith in Protestant England and his expression of it in his Gradualia publications. I hold very dear the music of Gerald Finzi (English, 1901-1956), who lost his father, three brothers, and music teacher during his formative years. His music is imbued with a vulnerability and melancholy that speaks to me like nothing else.

7. What would be your top five favorite pieces of sacred polyphony?
Another tough question! Here’s a try, all by English composers:
1. John Sheppard: Libera nos, salva nos I
2. John Taverner: Missa Gloria tibi trinitas
3. John Sheppard: Media vita
4. William Cornysh, Sr.: Salve regina
5. John Taverner: Dum transisset Sabbatum I

Many, many thanks to Doug Fullington for his time and thoughtful responses!

Doug and the Tudor Choir will provide music for a Dominican Rite Requiem Mass for All Dominican Souls on Thursday, Nov. 8, at 7 p.m. at beautiful Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle, where the Tudor Choir is a resident ensemble. They will sing a Requiem Mass by the Flemish Renaissance composer Philippe de Monte and works by the contemporary English composer John Tavener. For more on the beautiful Dominican Rite of the Mass, check back tomorrow.

What about you—what are your favorite pieces of sacred music? Let me know in the comments.

This is the first in a planned series of Q&As with experts in beauty, truth, and goodness. If you have suggestions for future topics or interview subjects, please email me at kbirnbaum(at)gmail(dot)com.

And to close, here’s a great video from one of the Tudor Choir’s recording sessions: