William Byrd and the music of rebellion

March 17 2022, by Patrick Maxwell

The English composer William Byrd (1540-1623) is not known as much of a revolutionary. His music is a staple of the Anglican cathedral tradition, hailed as among the best of English polyphony, even as musicologists easily find its distinct Continental influence. Those who revel in its undeniable beauty do so in appreciation only of that beauty. Much of it certainly does not seem to be a voice in the wilderness, or music composed in secret, with politically and religiously subversive intentions in mind. But that was the context Byrd was writing; he was a product of the various pulls of patrons, overlords and monarchs, fighting with and against his own principles and artistic principles. In England, he was perhaps one of the last great composers to be so influenced by the censors and cultural policemen who stalked Tudor and Stuart lands. Somehow, his work seems ever more important, powerful and worthy of study because of it.

Byrd was a devout Catholic in an England under the protestant leash of Elizabeth I’s rule. The country had swung between the two sides of the Reformation – Henry VII’s break from Rome to found the Church of England, Mary I’s bloody counter-Reformation and Elizabeth’s Settlement. The pendulum-like condition of state religion made principled devotion nigh-on impossible. Figures in the public eye – politicians, priests, artists – were obliged to adhere or risk political ignominy or death. William Byrd risked both in his long life. The miracle for English music is that he managed to stay away, by a mixture of musical genius and astute diplomacy, from both of the consequences which greeted all of his fellow rebels.

Elizabeth pursued a more moderate policy than her doctrinaire predecessors. While emphasising the break from Rome and imposing a large fine on those who failed to attend weekly Church of England services, in practice she imposed a more moderate strategy. Those recusants who refused to adhere to Protestant hegemony were charged by the state, and were forced by threats and popular decree to hide out on the fringes of society. Recusants within the country gentry were among the few able to do this, moving to the isolated halls such as Ingatestone Hall in Essex, where Byrd’s patron Sir John Petre kept up the faith. Elizabeth permitted the clandestine worship of this outposts of Catholic worship, so long as they remained just so isolated and closeted as political circumstances allowed.

Byrd’s position among this complex web of political and religious priorities is incredible for its simplicity. Byrd remained a devoted recusant, who openly promoted, through music, the words and works of those most opposed to the Elizabethan Settlement. Yet he was also the country’s most talented musician, used as an example of English artistic creativity at the height of the Tudor ascendancy and Britain’s foreign power. Because of this, he secured himself an exceptional status among the court during Elizabeth’s reign and despite the continuing persecution of Byrd’s religious allies.

Byrd was the greatest composer of the motet England has seen. It was in the form of the Latin motet that he found his most expressive, open and musically explorative inspiration; his student Thomas Morley called it ‘the chiefest for art and utility’. Most of these works would have been known only to the small circle of fellow recusants at his patron’s house in Essex and, presumably, the religious consors always on the edge of reprimanding Byrd for his activities. Today, they are his most famous works, and take pride of place in both Anglican and Catholic choral repertoire in this country. The beguilingly simple ‘Ave verum corpus’ is a prime example of what the musicologist Joseph Kerman termed Byrd’s ‘Jesuit rhetoric’.

Within a few notes, the piece has theological implications. The words tell of the ‘true body born of Mary the Virgin’. A Protestant would have been careful to place musical emphasis on ‘corpus’ – the body. Byrd, the Catholic, insistent on the eternal virtue of the Eucharistic feast, places it instead on ‘verum’ – truth. As Kerman puts it, ‘he emphasises the adjective, not the noun – the truth, not the substance.’ It is a facet lost on most listeners, as perhaps it would have evaded the authorities who allowed Byrd his clandestine existence throughout the dangerous 1580s. But it certainly could not have been lost on Byrd’s fellow recusants. For Byrd, for whom every accent, main beat and piece of musical syntax was vital, it was as clear as day.

That musical rhetoric, the fine-tuned intricacy of Byrd’s charged writing, is something distinctly English. It is distinct from the more florid writing of Palestrina in Italy, or even from his tutor Thomas Tallis. The Mass for Five Voices is a prime example of Byrd’s more fiercely charged rhetoric. The music is built up from the light polyphony of altos and trebles, but is met soon after by the arrival by the homophonic full choir writing which is almost shocking in its admonishing quality. The Agnus Dei from that Mass is one of Byrd’s most famous pieces, built up to a breathtaking climax and resolution from the simplest of openings. Just as much as he was trying to comfort his afflicted recusant congregations, Byrd was warning the rest of his audiences of the 16th century and afterwards. ‘Vigilate’, one of his most texturally brilliant motets, urgently reminds its audiences to ‘keep watch’, with a darkly playful section on the word ‘repente’ – ‘suddenly’. Byrd is writing about the Lord finding his flock asleep when they should be vigilant. His music is a call to action, a warning of destruction and enemies all around, which spoke all too clearly to his persecuted community.

Byrd’s most subversive music comes from the ‘gallows texts’ he set during the height of Elizabethan persecution of Jesuit missionaries. In 1581, the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion was brutally executed in London, having been found and prosecuted by the vigilante groups of ‘priest hunters’. Campion’s mission was to found a sustainable and far-reaching Jesuit community in England, on the orders of Rome. Elizabeth’s toleration of private worship did not extend to such political stirrings, and his brutal death shocked Catholics across the country into a period of increased reclusiveness and silence. In these increasingly dangerous circumstances, Byrd’s retreated to Essex, only to release the culmination of his work for the church, the Gradualia, in 1605 and 1607. The collection gave a collection of all basic repertory material for the fulfilment of the English liturgy; works for three, four and five voices, for all parts of the Christian calendar. Beyond its clear practical purposes, however, Byrd was clearly providing something else. Indeed, Joseph Kerman claims that Byrd’s motive was not to complete the Christian round of worship with his music. A quick glance at the works’ dedication highlights a sharp focus on the times of devotion, dedication and suffering within the calendar, particularly around Lent.

There is clear evidence that Byrd, and his Catholic audience, were aware of the use of gallows texts in music. When Roger Filcock, a Jesuit priest executed in 1601, recited the words ‘Haec dies quam fecit Dominus’ before being killed, Byrd reproduced them in one of his most lively and intricate motets. In an exchange with a European musician, Philippe de Monte, Byrd sent a motet clearly evoking his feelings at the English religious tyranny: ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ The Jesuit mission in England was perfectly aware that the nation’s premier composer was a clandestine supporter. But Byrd was also a subtle and shrewd diplomat in triangulating the world of Elizabethan society. He managed to stay in favour with the monarch, while leaving an increasingly large legacy of music which undermined her settlement and Protestant supremacy.

Byrd became the Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572, the head musician of the most prestigious institution of its kind in the country. The Chapel Royal was the musical pride of the Elizabethan court, used by the Queen to show off her artistic skill to foreign dignitaries, many of whom would have been Catholics. Byrd became a diligent, highly prolific and mysterious figure at the height of this Court.

Byrd’s Great Service has often been labelled as the most glorious setting of the Tudor era. A monumental work, it displays a dexterity and deft use of eight and five part writing, the likes of which would not be seen in England again. Even Henry Purcell would use simpler textures, to some of the same effects, one hundred years later. The sheer power and mastery of the music was something which Elizabeth and her courtiers knew they could not reject, or be seen to persecute. Indeed, a piece like the Great Service only helped to display the virtuosity of England’s most famous musician alive, writing exemplary music in English. Byrd’s covert activities, clear in their intent only to its devotees and the most zealous inquisitor, was accepted as an unfortunate blemish. It was Byrd’s musical genius alone which saved him persecution. The English reformation only went so far in its doctrinal reach; indeed, it is the prime irony of Byrd’s legacy that his music is most prized by the Anglican cathedrals empowered by the Reformation he so resisted.

Byrd’s most famous motet is one of the three ‘Jerusalem motets’ of 1589 – Ne irascaris Domine. A piece of good length and powerful consistency, it is a clear invocation of the composer’s despair at the state of English Catholicism. This has its clearest representation in the second half of the piece – ‘Jerusalem desolata est’ – ‘Jerusalem is deserted’. Byrd mostly refrains from using a minor key, or even great harmonic daring. When he does, it is doubly powerful. The resignation, obvious and penetrating, comes from a mix of individual lines weaved together, and the soft homophonic statements: ‘Sion deserta facta est’. The top line moves slowly upwards to its inevitable high-point, but Byrd almost sees this as too much. Before long, the piece has reached its inevitable conclusion. The seemingly endless searching, seeking lines of the choir, falling over each other, somehow come to a halt. Like Byrd’s own beliefs, we feel it could never be any other way.

Patrick Maxwell, L6

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