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Discovering the hidden Catholic messages in Tudor sacred music

The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire (Getty)

Francis O’Gorman on voices the Reformation couldn't silence

One of the curious features of the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer is its approach to the event of the Reformation. Of course the text is a Reformation document, its key liturgical achievement. The forms of worship laid down in 1549 helped define the new English Protestantism. But what does the BCP say about the Reformation itself? The answer, as the historian of Protestantism, Alec Ryrie, points out, is nothing at all.

The event of Henry VIII’s break from Rome, with all its cultural, personal and ecclesiastical tumult, was too raw to mention even in the prayer book created by it. And this silence continued almost without exception throughout the next 120 years, becoming more and more deafening. As time passed, different editions of the BCP reflected different theological viewpoints but made no explicit reference to Henry VIII’s break or Edward VI’s severe Protestantism and Mary Tudor’s efforts to reverse the Reformation.

Like soldiers returning from the First World War and never talking about their experience for the rest of their lives, the Prayer Book is too traumatised to speak of trauma.

Stile Antico’s new recording captures some of that trauma. It presents composers who, during the reign of Elizabeth I, retained the old faith and, despite the official Protestantism, contributed to the glories of English Catholic sacred music. The composers here were either literal exiles abroad or figurative ones, working in an England that no longer welcomed them.

Robert White is not as celebrated as Byrd or Tallis but his work is exquisite. Successively Organist at Ely, Chester, and then Westminster Abbey, White is represented on this recording by his Lamentations à 5.

This is significant. The Prophet Jeremiah’s qinah, a Hebrew form for the mourning of a lost city, had acquired pointed significance for English Catholics under Elizabeth. Tallis’s settings are better known. White, a Catholic, nevertheless contributed two versions, including this 23-minute long five-voice setting of remarkable fineness.

The music speaks through Jeremiah of the Catholics’ deep grief for the lost city. White, to my ear, catches too something of the empty, haunting landscapes of the fens around Ely – a supplementary sense of a place abandoned. Stile Antico skein out the long, anguished lines, with their occasional bitter moments of false relations. It is a curious question about human responses to the arts that we can take profound pleasure from such sadness.

There were other scriptural texts that could hardly fail to resonate with Catholics in the reign of Gloriana. The exile texts of the Old Testament linked the Hebrews far from Jerusalem with the English Catholics in an officially Protestant nation.

Philippe de Monte, the chief sacred musician to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, had recently composed music to the words from Psalm 137, Super flumina Babylonis (“By the rivers of Babylon”), perhaps the most memorable of all the biblical exile texts. And in 1583 he sent his piece over to England to the recusant composer William Byrd, who had converted to Catholicism at some point in the 1570s.

De Monte pointedly included the line “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Perhaps he was asking Byrd whether – living under the Queen whom Pope Pius V had in 1570 officially condemned as a heretic – he would have to hang up his harp. Byrd’s reply was the piece that follows de Monte’s on this recording: Quomodo cantabimus in eight voices. The exceptional contrapuntal writing of this motet, with three voices performing a canon by inversion, is not hard to hear as Byrd reassuring his questioner that would do no such thing – even though, at that very moment, his life was in danger from Protestant enemies at court.

The best known work on this recording is Richard Dering’s Factum est silentium, a motet for the feast of St Michael the Archangel. Dering had converted to Catholicism on a visit to Italy and here is an appropriately Italianate, madrigal-like piece, with lively, combative energy. It contains the line: “There was silence in heaven while the dragon fought the Archangel…” These words, profoundly meaningful for persecuted recusants, are delivered on this recording with crystal-clear diction and finely balanced voices.

The London-based Stile Antico, who have become one of the world’s leading early music vocal specialists, see themselves as chamber musicians, working in creative dialogue with each other. As such, they have no conductor. In a Strange Land contains beautiful singing from all parts, with an emotional coherence as convincing as the technical control.

The performers are, of course, adults, and perhaps there is something to be said for using boy trebles, imparting an innocence to the sound in poignantly meaningful contrast with the torment of the 16th-century Church. But this is a persuasive recording, all the same, which captures the sound of the sorrow that Henry VIII left behind.

Francis O’Gorman was an organ scholar at Oxford and writes widely on organ and choral music. He is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh