When William Byrd, eulogised as “Britain’s greatest composer” by Joseph Kerman, published four hundred years ago the final installment of his monumental Gradualia (“music for a people oppressed”), England found itself engulfed in an anti-Catholic frenzy that had been brought to boiling point by the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. It was composed during a period of brutal religious persecution and upon which the Jesuit influence, an influence that until very recently had gone unrecognised, was decisive.
A dozen years earlier, in 1593, Elizabeth I introduced An Act for Restraining Popish
Recusants, a statute that signalled a hardening of the monarch’s initially moderate attitude towards those Catholics who refused to attend services of the Church of England. Since the 1559 Act of Uniformity of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacrament, Roman Catholics had been liable to imprisonment for attending Mass and were fined for non-attendance at services of the Church of England. It was in this oppressive environment that William Byrd, a staunch Catholic who was frequently fined under the recusancy laws, rose to prominence not only as the finest musician of his day, but also for gaining admission as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (in 1572) where he was listed as organist alongside his contemporary Thomas Tallis.
Byrd pubished this eucharistic motet in the 1607 Gradualia. It’s the magnificat antiphon for First Vespers appointed to be sung on the Feast of Corpus Christi. It opens with some wonderful chromatic harmonies and progresses smoothly through it’s changes both of mood and of subject. It’s sung below by the Cambridge Singers conducted by John Rutter.
[I cannot embed this video, so please click into this link and then the video on Mark’s blog.]
O quam suavis est, Domine, Spiritus tuus, qui, ut dulcedinem tuam in filios demonstrares, pane suavissimo de coelo praestito, esurientes reples bonis, fastidiosos divites dimittens inanes.
O how sweet, Lord, is thy Holy Spirit: thou who, to show thy loving kindness unto thy children, sent sweetest bread from heaven, filling the hungry with good things but sending the rich empty away.
Magnificat Antiphon for First Vespers, Feast of Corpus Christi
Very lovely! Thank you! Looking about for versions of the Corpus Christi hymns, I found this at Spotify, Byrd’s ‘Mass for four voices with the propers for Corpus Christi’ (viz. http://open.spotify.com/album/3J68XHYmcPUXTVRTNQ8CK3): not really what I wanted, apart from the Pange lingua but beautiful. Alas, in the parish church our music tomorrow (Corpus Christi on Sunday) won’t be quite so… lovely and beautiful.