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Exploring Music: A Choir of International Prominence

The MHS Review 379 Vol. 11, NO. 1 • 1987

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David M. Greene


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Back in 1960 when John F. Kennedy was running for the presidency, it was said that some of the more enthusiastic Protestant ministers in my town were promising that if he were elected the streets would flow with Protestant blood, and there was a joke tht the local steel company had signed a contract to pipe holy water over from Rome. Such unhappily familiar anti­Catholic sentiments are part of our heritage from the English Renaissance.

It was not a comfortable thing to be a Roman Catholic in the realm of the first Elizabeth. Catholics were regarded with a suspicion, a hostility, and a fear such as some of us reserve for Communists. Indeed matters went further than that. Elizabeth's Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, organized a sophisticated intelligence net­work throughout western Europe. (The great playwright Christopher Marlowe was one of his spies.) Suspects among those who had fled the country were lured back and, like their domestic brethren, were subjected (like many a victim of the Catholic Inquisition) to hideous tortures and usually executed. (The Jesuit poet Robert Southwell was one such victim.)

Yet English Catholics for the most part managed to survive and some·even to pro­sper. Dowland, after many vicissitudes, not all of which resulted from his religion, was at last made a member of the King's Musick. And William Byrd, who seems to have been adroit at playing both ends against the middle, enjoyed the queen's special favor. Byrd was a pupil of the great Thomas Tallis, who seems to have had a weather-vane faith that veered with the whim of national administrations.

When Byrd was 29 and Tallis in his mid-60s, the two became co-organists of the (Anglican) Chapel Royal. When they found that that post did not supply a liv­ing wage, they successfully petitioned Her Majesty for monopolistic rights to print music and music paper. In gratitude they had a joint collection of their motets, en­titled Cantiones sacrae (Sacred songs), handsomely bound and presented it to their monarch. Never mind that the words were in Latin (the queen was a model Latinist) and the music for Catholic wor­ship. Elizabeth didn't let religious dif­ferences stand in the way of Taste.

About all that Byrd seems to have paid for his faith were some fines for non­attendance at church (Anglican). But in later life, long after Tallis was gone, he evidently worked hard to promote Catholic worship, however clandestine, in England. To this end he embarked on a great series of works for the liturgy, which remained unfinished at his death. It was at this time that he produced the three set­tings of the ordinary of the Mass and began work on the Gradualia for specific services.

In 1589 and 1591 he published (in part books) two further volumes of Cantiones sacrae, these for five and six voices, and probably intended for home (rather than church) use. Their preponderance of serious, if not downright gloomy, themes seems to hint at the plight of English Catholics. The present record, based on the first volume, offers nine motets, six of which are new to records.

Oxford's New College dates from 1379, some 200 years after the University's foun­dation. Its choir, populated, on the evidence of a photograph, by hordes of goggle-eyed little boys in shorts, was founded at the same time, though the membership has changed. The children tend to dominate the 10 more-or-less adult males, but you know English choirs. This one, in the I0 years it has been directed by Edward Higginbottom, has won inter­national prominence.

Review of Selections from Byrd's First Book of Sacred Songs.

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