The problems faced by Catholics in Elizabethan England were similar to those which members of various Christian denominations had to deal with at one time or another, namely that their religious faith differs from that of the ruling power.
In 1553, the death of young Edward VI led to the succession of Henry VIII’s elder daughter Mary. During Mary’s reign, she and her cousin Cardinal Pole took upon themselves the task of restoring Roman Catholicism. Their efforts ended with Mary’s death in 1559 and the ascension to the throne of Mary’s younger sister Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth I was brought up a Protestant, and her coming into power resulted in the suppression and persecution of Roman Catholics for a second time in England.
The Catholic composer William Byrd was active as a musician at a time when being Catholic in England was, to say the least, not encouraged. The first parliament of Elizabeth’s reign made illegal the celebration of Mass, and required all subjects to attend the services of the established church – the Church of England – on Sundays and holy days. The fine of missing church services was twelvepence for every absence. The parliament of 1562 – 1563 added penalties for upholding the Pope’s authority. Any person committing such an offense twice would be accused of treason.
William Byrd thrived professionally in spite of his Catholicism, chiefly because his genius was appreciated by people in positions of authority, and also because he was apparently highly gifted in interpersonal skills. In 1570, he was sworn in as gentleman of the Chapel Royal, where he associated himself with important and powerful figures, most but not all of whom were Catholics. In 1575, Byrd secured a joint monopoly from the Queen for the printing and marketing of music and music paper. In 1577, the composer received the lease of the Manor of Longney in Gloucestershire, which entailed another source of income.
Scholars have pointed out that Byrd’s career up to 1575 – 1577 had been more of a worldly one, without very many signs of Catholic leanings. But it was also around this time that the composer became serious in his commitment to the Catholic faith. In 1577, Byrd’s wife, and Byrd himself in 1585, were starting to be cited for recusancy – the refusal to attend Church of England services. In 1581, Henry Walpole, a young poet, witnessed the execution of the Jesuit Edmund Campion and wrote a long and anguished poem called Why do I use my paper, ink and pen? Byrd set this poem to music, hardly a move designed to further his career. The composer was also one of a small group assembled to welcome Fathers Southwell and Henry Garnet, two notable Jesuits, to England in 1586 – a sign that he must have been an active member of the Elizabethan Catholic community.
Towards Byrd’s later years, he moved away from London to Stondon Massey, where he was close to the comparatively secure Roman Catholic community headed by his friend and patron, Sir John Petre. While there, he was often accused of having “seduced” servants and neighbours away from the Anglican Church. In spite of all these activities, Byrd suffered little molestation from the authorities, and his musical work was little disturbed. Perhaps his tremendous talents as a composer protected him from severe persecution. After his move away from London, he continued to compose, but gradually distanced himself from London, the centre of musical activities, and more towards the community of his own faith.
In Byrd’s last years, he occupied himself with a scheme to provide music specifically for Catholic services, the efforts of which can be seen in his Gradualia of 1605, with 63 motets and related pieces for liturgical use.
The Latin motet is a musical form uniquely associated with Roman Catholicism, and was a popular musical form with composers of the Renaissance. A motet is a piece of unaccompanied choral music set to words from the Bible or the Office books of the church. Remarkably, composition of the Latin motet continued into Elizabethan times, when all the arts of the Roman Catholic liturgy were at the mercy of practitioners of the new religion.
William Byrd composed motets in various stages of his compositional career. At the time when he was beginning to make a serious commitment to his Catholic faith, his motets also changed not only in musical style, but in the selection of the texts. Scholars have pointed out that many of Byrd’s motets were written at this time to extend comfort and support to the Elizabethan Catholic community, and to offer prayers and lamentations on their behalf. The use of seemingly apolitical Biblical verses would have been a relatively safe way to express one’s views. Certainly many of Byrd’s compositions can be open to such an interpretation.
In Byrd’s 1589 motet Ne irascaris Domine, he set to music to the text, “Your holy cities have become a desert, Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a waste. Our holy and glorious temple in which our fathers praised you has been burned with fire; All that was dear to us is laid waste.” Byrd’s references to “your holy cities,” “Zion”, and “Jerusalem” might have been masked references to the Elizabethan Catholic community. He might also have been referring to the exile of a number of English after 1559, including a substantial numbers of academics, particularly from Oxford. The “burning” of the “holy and glorious temple” might also be referring to Elizabeth’s efforts to eliminate Catholicism from England, or to the forced conversion of all the Catholic churches into Anglican ones. “All that was dear to us” could include the celebration of Mass and other Catholic rites.
In another motet, Haec dicit Dominus, also from 1589, Byrd set to music the words, “There is hope for your future, says the Lord; Your sons shall return to their own borders.” It seems quite clear that the composer was thinking of all the exiled Catholics being able to return to their own land to worship in the open. The composer’s mind must have been with these exiled Catholics when he composed Circumspice Jerusalem, “Here come your sons whom you once let go, gathering in from the east and from the west.”
In 1581, Father Edmund Campion and two other Jesuits were hanged, disembowelled, and quartered at Tyburn Hill. Byrd’s 1589 motet Deus venerunt gentes might have been referring to this particular event, “They have given the corpses of your servants as food to the birds of heaven, the flesh of your faithful ones to the beasts of the earth. They have poured out their blood like water round about Jerusalem, and there is no one to bury them.”
Furthermore, Byrd’s setting to music of Henry Walpole’s An Epitaph of the Life and Death of the most famous clerk and virtuous priest Edmund Campion, or his composition Crowned with flowers and lilies, an elegy on the death of Queen Mary. Some thought that the latter was written in 1606, when King James I raised a monument to Elizabeth but not to Mary, whose tomb she shared.
The use of hidden meanings within musical texts was not a concept new to composers. On a practical side, the composer Josquin set the psalm Memor esto verbi tui servo tuo to remind the French kind to pay him!
When the texts of Byrd’s motets are examined individually, it is perhaps difficult to make a case for any veiled reference or political connotations. It is when we examine the texts as a whole, that the pattern becomes clear, that Byrd was using his music to voice prayers, exhortations, and protests on behalf of the English Roman Catholic community. It is almost as if Byrd was systematically choosing texts that would be suited to his political and religious views. Similar pro-Catholic sentiments can also be found in some of the composer’s English songs.
It is inspiring to read about a composer whose faith so enveloped his musical creation. William Byrd did exceedingly well in spite of his Catholic faith. Perhaps his genius was too great to have been ignored by those in power. Had Byrd converted to become an Anglican, his career might have gone even further - certainly his life would have been much easier. One could only think of Anton Bruckner as another composer whose faith so dictated his creativity.
To William Byrd’s fellow Catholics, the music, specifically his motets, must have given them a voice – a voice for their hopes, their dreams and their aspirations – a voice that expresses these sentiments much more powerfully and eloquently than they could ever have done themselves.
December 5, 2010