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 who absolves all the sins of suffering man
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.