Sacred choral music touches on deep religious, moral and political questions

    William Byrd, master of polyphony, had much to say on all of them

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    How could this possibly be grounds for arrest? To most people today, sacred choral music of the 16th and 17th centuries is a calming oasis, or perhaps a devotional aid. But its history is a troubled, sometimes violent, one. Singing certain sorts of music could lead to public censure, or worse. The story of Byrd (1540-1623), an English Roman Catholic who contrived to remain part of the Protestant establishment he defied, illustrates the role such music played in political and theological struggles.

    Though singing had a place in Christian worship long before, the earliest works of Europe’s sacred music of which records remain come from around the 10th century. This early choral music was largely “monophonic”, a tune often sung by a single person, without accompanying harmony or chords, such as plainchant.

    This was not due to a lack of sophistication. “Polyphony”, music of interweaving tunes and harmonies, is part of humankind’s common heritage. Medieval people were not backward or stupid; monophonic music was a conscious choice made by those in positions of religious power. They thought it quelled the passions and encouraged devotion, Peter Pesic reports in his book “Polyphonic Minds”. Although plainchant has a rhythm, it is mostly imperceptible; by contrast, the need for the different parts of the piece to stay connected means polyphony must have a beat. Church elders were not afraid that congregations would start tapping their toes or swinging their partners. But they were still worried. In 1159 John of Salisbury, a scholar and bishop, asserted that the “effete emotings” of polyphonic singers “can more easily occasion titillation between the legs than a sense of devotion in the brain.” In the 13th century Thomas Aquinas argued that polyphonic music might suit God and the angels, who could know many things at once. Humans, he feared, were not up to such multi-tasking.

    Melisma the moocher

    Despite this, polyphony gained a foothold in church music, and over time it became ever more ornate—even obscurantist. “Viderunt omnes” (1198?), a work by the composer Pérotin, is a prime example, rich in “melisma”—the singing of a single syllable while moving between several different notes. The first syllable, “Vi-”, is spread over 40 bars—40 seconds, at a reasonable tempo—before the singers move to the second syllable, “-de-”. Elegant; not intelligible. Humans can barely understand words which are so showily and radically slowed down and prolonged.

    The spread of polyphony led to a backlash. Pope John XXII (who canonised Aquinas) appeared to admit that he rather liked polyphony. Yet his papal bull in 1324 censured music in which the “melodies are broken up by hockets [melodies shared by two voices] or robbed of their virility by discanti [an improvised line complementing the tune proper, often in a higher register]”. As late as the end of the 14th century the author of a treatise on plainchant noted that he could not recommend polyphony as “I am a monk, and must not give opportunity for lasciviousness.”

    Such opportunities nevertheless arose. Consider the Eton Choirbook of the late 15th century, the most famous collection of music from England’s Catholic days. It consists of sacred vocal music in Latin, beautiful but elaborate and obscure. “Salve regina” by John Browne is relentless in its richness. The final “Salve” builds through fully 35 bars of melisma on the syllable “Sal-” to the final chord, “-ve”.

    In the 16th century the Protestant Reformation sought to put a stop to such things. Protestants wanted worshippers to have a personal relationship with God and to read the Bible in the vernacular, rather than Latin. Music which rendered texts unintelligible had to go. The Catholic counter-reformation took a somewhat similar line. At the Council of Trent (1545-63) there was discussion of “whether that type of music…which delights the ears more than the mind…should be taken away from the masses”. Ideally, music “should be sung so that the words are more intelligible than the modulations of the music.” Polyphony persisted, but in a more austere form. The “Missa Papae Marcelli” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594) sounds fairly ornate to modern ears. But it showed that polyphonic music could be intelligible.

    Byrd introduces dissonances that, to 16th-century ears, would have sounded highly unusual

    This was the setting in which Byrd, England’s greatest composer, plied his trade. He seemed like an archetypal establishment figure, part of the Chapel Royal, the monarch’s choir, from his boyhood to his death. In 1575, along with Thomas Tallis, a composer who had taught him his craft, he was granted a 21-year royal patent that gave him a monopoly over the printing and publishing of polyphonic music. He wrote plenty of pieces in adoration of the queen; indeed, he was Elizabeth I’s favourite composer.

    Byrd could never have led a quiet life. He was an irascible man who nursed plenty of grudges: in his will he refers to the “undutiful obstinacy of one whom I am unwilling to name”. Kerry McCarthy, in a biography of Byrd, also points out that in the 1590s he fitted lead pipes to Stondon Massey, his house in Essex. This “may not have contributed to the sanity or equanimity of the Byrd family,” she notes. But plenty of artists are grumpy and mad. Byrd’s bigger problem—and the reason why, for centuries, he was not granted the same official approbation as Tallis, who hid his faith better—was his fervent Catholicism.

    Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, had severed the Church of England from its allegiance to the Church of Rome. Under his son, Edward VI, the Church of England turned decisively Protestant; after Edward’s death Henry’s elder daughter, Queen Mary, restored Roman Catholicism. After Mary’s death Elizabeth brought back Protestantism. The new state religion was brutally enforced. In 1588 alone an estimated 22 priests and 16 lay people were put to death because of their Catholic sympathies.

    Byrd, for all his establishment credentials, appeared with his wife Julian on government lists of “recusants”—those who refused to abjure their allegiance to Rome. Once he was fined £200 (more than £70,000 at today’s prices) for failure to attend Anglican services. He was suspected of involvement in a planned Catholic uprising in 1583 to free Mary Queen of Scots from prison. Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, said he would “seek out matters against Byrde”. Despite the queen’s favour, Byrd’s life was “spent in fear…of the knock on the door at midnight”, as John Rutter, a contemporary composer, puts it.

    Are you now or have you ever been…

    The Anglican polyphony of Byrd’s time is nicely presented in Tallis’s “If Ye Love Me”, a setting of a passage from the Gospel of John, published in 1565. The words are in English. They are also easy to understand, in part because, at least at the start, the singers sing as one. Byrd could write such things. He was a post-Council of Trent Catholic, and placid Tallis’s influence on him is easy to hear. But he wanted to write music that was richer and more mysterious, harking back to Browne’s “Salve regina”. To that end he composed many pieces intended not for the court or cathedrals, but for secret papist gatherings, such as those said to have taken place at Ingatestone Hall in Essex. It is from Ingatestone that Charles de Ligny was probably returning when he was arrested in that London pub. The hall has not one but two “priest holes” where Catholic clerics could be hidden from Elizabeth’s spies.

    The conflicting pressures of life and faith produced in Byrd a music both subtle and sublime, full of symbolism aimed at his fellow Catholics—and occasionally secret messages to them. He had three techniques for making his political and religious points.

    The first was his choice of text. Especially in his later career, he preferred Latin, for which there was by then no place in Anglican services. The Latin text of Byrd’s “Deus venerunt gentes” contains references to “the heathen [who] have set foot in thy domain”. Joseph Kerman, a musicologist, argued that the text refers to the hanging, drawing and quartering of Edmund Campion in 1581, who became a Catholic martyr.

    Byrd’s second tactic was to make subtle use of Catholic motifs and to quote from the work of composers who flourished in easier times. As noted by Richard Turbet, an academic, the beginning of “Victimae paschali” appears to copy the tune from the “Domine Deus” by Jacob Clemens non Papa (1510?-1556). (The “non Papa” bit was inserted to avoid confusion with Pope Clement VII.)

    Byrd’s third tactic was the most oblique. Hidden musical messages are woven through his compositions like gossamer embroidery. Take the first 15 seconds of the piece “Ave verum corpus” (“Hail, true body”), probably composed in 1605. In everyday speech it would make sense to stress the first or third words of that opening line. Byrd instead chooses to stress the second, “verum”, with a loud dissonance. The technique highlights the doctrinal issue, central to Catholics, of transubstantiation. The truth of the body being hailed, according to Mr Kerman, is that of “the Eucharist which miraculously is the Body”.

    The finest example of Byrd’s musical trickery, however, is in the “Mass for Four Voices”, written in 1592-93. The piece was published without a title page, to conceal the identity of the printer. The title hints at the fraught environment in which it was written: with masses having to take place in secret, it was difficult to assemble a large choir.

    The composition follows the conventional structure of a mass. But it is in the final line of the final piece, “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem” (or “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace”), that all the action takes place.

    Byrd’s intention with the final three words of the piece is to emphasise the absence of peace in the harried lives of English Roman Catholics. As “Dona nobis pacem” is sung over and over, Byrd introduces dissonances that, to 16th-century ears, would have sounded highly unusual. On repeated listening, they become more jarring still as Byrd pleads with the authorities to leave him and his co-religionists alone. The waves of discord, it seems, will never end; the notes move gradually downwards, conveying death and decay.

    And then the piece, wholly unexpectedly, closes on a serene g major chord. Peace has been granted. In music as in faith, if not in politics, the struggle of the Catholic is beautifully, eternally resolved.

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