In praise of music

Daily Reading for November 21 • William Byrd, 1623, John Merbecke, 1585, and Thomas Tallis, 1585, Musicians

To an age like ours, fascinated with alienation and marginalization, Byrd presents an intriguing dilemma. Revered by his contemporaries and honored by his chief employer, Queen Elizabeth, he appears in some lights as the perfect royal musician, writing on order for the newly established Church of England as well as clothing courtiers’ ditties in substantial if often rather sober musical garb. The other, darker side of his life is represented by his stubbornly persistent Roman Catholicism. Clinging to his faith, he refused to conform and stayed away from his parish church in defiance of the law as long as he lived. His religious music, most of it in Latin, and some of it written expressly for the proscribed services of the Roman Catholic rite, has an intensity that appears to stem directly from his religious and political predicament as an outsider on the inside of Elizabethan society. . . .

Byrd had to face not only the persecution of his religion but also the Puritan suspicion of music, which affected even liberal thinkers like Roger Ascham, who argued that instrumental music was effeminate and that while the young might learn singing, shooting was better. No wonder that Byrd in his first songbook, the much reprinted Psalmes, Sonets & Songs of sadness and pietie of 1588, included a list of reasons “to persuade every one to learn to sing.” These reasons carefully emphasize the spiritual and the physical; “it doth strengthen all parts of the breast, and doth open the pipes” is a fair example. The Oxford don John Case, in his Praise of Musicke (1586), was prepared to go much further in asserting that “the chief end of music is to delight.” . . .

In a famous personal statement in one of the Gradualia prefaces, Byrd speaks of the sacred words that he sets to music:

“In the very sentences (as I have learned from experience) there is such hidden and concealed power that to a man thinking about divine things and turning them over attentively and earnestly in his mind, the most appropriate measures come, I know not how, as if by their own free will, and freely offer themselves to his mind if it is neither idle nor inert.”

From William Byrd and His Contemporaries: Essays and a Monograph by Philip Brett (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007).

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