Please, no tambourines…

It is becoming more difficult to live life as a Catholic in England, but we really have it easy: would you have burned incense to escape the lions under Domitian? would you have kept the faith under the tyrant, Henry or his daughter Bloody Elizabeth or kept your head down?

These issues are sharply picked out in the music of the period, the foremost composers in England during the Tudor tyrannies were a trinity of John Sheppard, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. Sheppard died in the year before Mary I’s death and did not have to witness the destruction of everything that she and Cardinal Pole had achieved, but Byrd and Tallis survived well into Elizabeth’s reign. Both men were prominent recusants, Byrd went on to write Masses and other Catholic music throughout Elizabeth’s reign, even though the rites to which they pertained were illegal, punishable by death (mere possession of Byrd partbooks was considered evidence of Catholicism and, therefore, of treason).

Few of Tallis’ works from the period following the accession of Elizabeth survive, but what we do have is the magnificent motet “Spem In Aulium”, which some historians believe to have been composed for the occasion of Elizabeth’s coronation (an irony, as its text is a meditation on the futility of human might):

I have never put my hope in any other but in you,
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness

Please pray for the repose of the souls of our departed brethren, Tallis, Sheppard, Tye and Byrd. Eternal rest grant to them O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them. Amen.

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11 Responses to Please, no tambourines…

  1. toadspittle says:

    Lovely post, Raven.

    (There, that’s got that out of the way.)

    Though I confess to mild disappointment as I was expecting an invigorating, anti-tambourine diatribe excoriating the Salvation Army…
    … and, naturally, the Muslims, and Henry VIII, and Christopher Hitchens, (noted amateur tambourinist, I believe).

    Apologies, but I must refer, in grave embarrassment, to the now ancient ‘thread’ on Jews and The Church. Sorry again, JP! (and JH, who might be jealous.)


  2. teresa says:

    Toad, enjoy the life and forget what irritates you, it is not worth the while.


  3. toadspittle says:

    Teresa, I do enjoy the life.

    I revel in it. Can’t wait for the day to begin. Sure, mine’s not perfect, anymore than yours is, but it’s all I’ve got – and it’s better now than it’s ever been. And CP&S is one of the reasons!

    (Bit of philosophy there. Somewhere.)


  4. teresa says:

    oh many thanks Toad!


  5. Gertrude says:

    St. Augustine in his Confessions said ‘How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs and the voices that echoed through your Church. What emotion I experienced in them. Those sounds flowed in my ears, distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face – tears that did me good.’
    Sadly there are few (if any) modern composers except perhaps Tavener (not to be confused with that master of polyphony, John Taverner who was perhaps the greatest link between mediaeval and Renaissance liturgical music).
    Please – no tambourines is an apt title – there are a collection of other instruments I would probably include though! When it comes to the sacred we sadly have to look to the past for music that truly honours and instills a sense of awe when in the presence of Our Blessed Lord.


  6. The Raven says:


    I confess to having little time for the modern Tavener; his compositions seem bland when stripped of countertenors, Tibetan bells and the other novelties he uses as decoration (I attended a concert given by the Tallis Scholars that premièred one of his pieces a little while ago: having the finest singers of polyphony at his disposal, the best he could come up with was to use them as a close-harmony backing group).

    Among the moderns, I’d suggest that Arvo Part would be a contender for writing good religious music.


  7. kathleen says:

    “Would you have kept the faith under the tyrant, Henry or his daughter Bloody Elizabeth…..?”

    Yes Raven, I’ve often asked myself that question. How I would wish I could answer “Yes, no matter what, I would never renounce my Faith!” Yet I am a coward for pain – I have a low pain threshold – and the thought of torture terrifies me! Would I have had the courage to remain loyal to Christ’s One True Church? I hope, if I am ever put to the test, Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin and all the angels and saints would give me the strength that I lack to withstand the trial.

    How hard it must have been for men and women of those times, especially if they wanted to protect their loved ones; although they might have been willing to face the consequences of remaining faithful to the Catholic Church themselves.

    I’m a cradle Catholic and my Catholic Faith has been handed down to me from my father’s Irish ancestry and my mother’s conversion to Catholicism (from the C of E) when she was 18 years old! How many bloggers on here are the descendants of recusant Catholics?


  8. Gertrude says:

    I had forgotten (how could I?) about Arvo Part – his De Profundis is one of the most moving pieces of music. Taverner’s earlier music was I think better prior to his ‘dependence’ on Mother Thekla, and I agree – he did begin to explore the influence of other religions, haiku, tibetan bells etc!! Both Part and Taverner do use percussion to perfection though. I will now go away and re-explore Part.


  9. Mimi says:

    Will I become a pariah here if I admit that there are some modern hymns that move me deeply? “Take and eat”, for example, never fails to bring tears to my eyes (even when I sing it to myself around the house). “Be not afraid” also moves me, though not quite to the same extent. But my absolute favourite is John Michael Talbot’s “Only in God” (Psalm 62).

    There! I’ve confessed!


  10. johnhenrycn says:

    “Will I become a pariah here if I admit that there are some modern hymns that move me deeply?”

    Not in my eyes, Mimi, but your comment reminds me of a Protestant hymn I used to like (I smiled when I saw it a few years back in the Catholic Book of Worship my parish uses, although I kept a straight face about it), which I haven’t been able to sing since its composer sought my advice about how to extricate himself, as painlessly as possible (financially, that is) from a ménage à trois.


  11. johnhenrycn says:

    On the “other blog”, the issue of modern hymns is under discussion as well, and mention was made there of a book entitled Why Catholics Can’t Sing, which I would recommend, if you wish to understand why Catholics can’t – well – sing, the author’s thesis basically being that hymnody has never been all that important a part of Catholic worship. Chant is not hymnody, in the sense of congregational participation.

    Someone else on that “other blog” ( I’m suffering withdrawal symptoms, btw), remarked that Amazing Grace is a “heretical” hymn. With all due respect to that commenter, who I think may have been a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic, I do not, for one second, accept the risible notion that musical notes can be heretical in any way, shape or form. Lyrics, maybe (and perhaps that is what he/she was referring to, although my recollection of the words to Amazing Grace don’t immediately impel me to make Signum Crucis. Musical notes, no. Otherwise, we must never again listen to Brahms, or more importantly, to any of the Bachs (seven, last time I checked).


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