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William Byrd, favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, was a confirmed and practising Catholic who worshipped in defiance of the Queen. His status and perhaps even his life was preserved thanks partly to the undeniable mastery of his music, and to the fact that he was careful to maintain an output of music appropriate for a Protestant Rite (simple and English) as well as a Catholic one (florid and Latin).
Byrd was by no means the only major Catholic composer working in England during these years. Furthermore, there were English composers whose faith drove them to work abroad, as well as foreign composers who offered sympathy and encouragement to English Catholics. Included in this latter category was the Flemish composer Phillipe De Monte who entered into a fascinating compositional correspondence with Byrd. Verses of Psalm 136 ‘Super Flumina Babylonis’ (containing many allegorical references to the plight of catholics unable to practice their faith openly) were set to music and exchanged, in what is now seen as an encoded message of mutual support and friendship between brothers in faith.
The texts reveal the Catholic community’s sense of isolation: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”, Quomodo Cantabimus; and bereavement: “Jerusalem is wasted”, Ne Irascaris, and the elaborate, poetic nature of the encoded messages distributed within it through music.
The early-music consort Gallicantus (led by former King's Singer Gabriel Crouch) is drawn from the ranks of recent BBC Music Magazine award-winning choir Tenebrae.
9th July 2012
“The intensity of the music is reflected in Gallicantus’s beautifully shaped performances, even if we miss now the raw sense of peril that English Catholics must then have felt.”
“The ensemble's view of this repertory, though hardly new, is delivered with such intelligence and rhetorical persuasiveness that the cumulative weight of their Byrd, in particular, is well-nigh symphonic in effect...Only the most prejudiced critics of 'the English sound', I'd say, could dispute that Gallicantus achieves something rather special here.”
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