Today’s readings present on the one hand in the Book of Exodus the calling of the Children of Israel to be Kingdom and Nation of Priests, and on the other the naming of the 12. The first is in some measure the precursor of the second of course. Just as Moses sets forth before Israel how God had formed them as a nation, so Jesus’s gathering of the 12 is his reconstitution of Israel. In both cases this is born of divine compassion.
Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself
But when Jesus saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd God’s self-identification with his people is from the outset – when they were suffering in Egypt, he bound himself to them. In turn Jesus has compassion on the crowds, and the 12 become the new structure of a divinely ordered nation, once again bound to God in this personal way, which in the New Paschal Mystery, with Jesus’s death as the lamb of God of the renewed Passover.
These great themes of adoption, Passover, divine compassion and feasting, which the Passover meal is par-excellence, are responded to in the motet we shall hear during communion today, Byrd’s incomparable Ave verum corpus.
HAIL, true Body born of the Virgin Mary, who truly suffered as a sacrifice upon the Cross for man, whose pierced side flowed with water and with blood, be for us a foretaste [of heaven] in the trial of death. O sweet and holy Jesus, Son of Mary, have mercy on me.
It’s one of the devotional hymns associated with the Feast of Corpus Christi, which we marked just over a week ago, always observed on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.
As we are having this motet today as part of the wider music festival that shapes the month of June, I wanted to say something about the composer William Byrd born 1540 died in 1623. It is an important anniversary.
It was not without significance that two pieces, two very different pieces of William Byrd’s were sung during the Coronation in May. Something of the contrast between them tells us about the man and the times in which he composed. His place in the firmament of English choral music is so important, and we have been so lucky these last three weeks to hear music by him.
And William Byrd holds a very special place in my musical sensibilities, 30 years ago this Summer we had the Byrd 4 part as the mass setting. In a way the powerful musical impulses of work represents a striving to hold in tension almost irreconcilable dichotomies of faith being battled over in the 16th, which only music can transcend, operating in spheres way beyond words.
Byrd’s life is hard to piece together, not unlike Tallis his teacher before him, there are fragments only about their early lives and there is an element of conjecture. Certainly from 1569 Byrd was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, a musician at Elizabeth’s court. But there is much evidence to suggest he may have sung there too a boy, and so was in Royal musical circles, if not service, for much of his long 80 year life. In a way as a Catholic, as we shall discover, in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, he hid in plain sight, under their noses. They were cultural connoisseurs, Elizabeth particularly, and for all her independent spirit, was clear that she had no interest in “making windows into men’s souls”. A genius on the scale of Byrd, pupil of his great master Tallis was to be harnessed not fettered. Indeed, Elizabeth gave them the publishing rights for all published music and music paper in her realm from 1575-1595 – although Tallis died in 1585. An important monopoly its publications give us some insight into their remarkable range as composers, and their ability both to accommodate in their lifetimes the ebb and flow of ecclesiastical change.
The first of Byrd’s compositions played in May was his beautiful piece Prevent us O Lord. In the tradition of Tallis’s deliberate clear propositional Protestant style, it sets to music words of a collect in ways which underline meaning. Its elegance is assured, clean, pure and didactic. There is no doubting its intention of the dependence of the faithful upon God in all things. It was composed we think in 1580 – as fevered anti-Catholic feeling was running high, Jesuit missionaries were coming to England, and plots against the Queen were emerging. It is a statement of Court religion, utterly reliant on the the Book of Common Prayer and Elizabeth’s Settlement.
The Gloria from the Mass for Four Voices, the setting we heard two Sundays ago, was sung soon after Prevent us O Lord. Each of them bracketed the swearing of the controversial Coronation Oath. The Gloria came as a Catholic blast just after it in fact. Its origin is very interesting.
It was written about 1593, maybe earlier. For some time by then Byrd had taken something of a back seat at the Chapel Royal. He still composed music of all sorts for use at court, but in his retreat with his many children in Essex, under the patronage of the Petre family at Ingatstone Hall, he wrote music for secret celebrations of the catholic mass, by missionary priests. Not to attend worship locally as an Anglican, which he did not, resulted in heavy fines which he paid, was one thing, to attend secret masses and to write for them was extremely dangerous.
He did this while on the payroll of the Chapel Royal, and still dedicating work to the Queen.
We can only speculate on what drew him from the Established religion and who knew what about his practice of the old faith, that meant he was able to survive with relatively little scrutiny, although there were moments of sanction, and he was not spared considerable fines.
Elizabeth did not cause him to confess, and he leaves us almost no words of his own, but his music tells its own tale.
There are scholars like Diarmaid Muculloch who maintain that the choral tradition, central at the Tudor Court throughout the 16th c with all its changes, and in the Cathedrals, was the single biggest brake on full reformation in England. I am inclined to agree. Byrd, and Tallis before him, exemplified what the reformers were so keen to underline as essential: musical adornment should merely point the meaning of words of the new liturgy. But behind this clear and deliberate and beautiful music, were men whose entire lives since 1505 in the case of Tallis and 1540 in the case of Byrd, had been shaped by music making in Catholic settings. Tallis as lay singer in a monastery, until it was dissolved in 1540, Waltham Abbey, Byrd, probably as a boy in the chapel royal, during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary (with a choir directed by Tallis). Mary’s heart was buried in St James’s in the chapel itself under the choir-stalls. I like to think it was buried there because her heart was lost in the sublime music-making of Tallis in her reign. Byrd was always loyal and understanding of his Patron Elizabeth, but his heart was lost too, in that ancient inheritance of the Catholic faith, whose residue, despite the convulsions of the age, and because of his quiet persistence, was not lost in Anglicanism.
It is easy to see why one late-16th-century music collector described Byrd as “a glory to our race, and a nightingale to our people”.