Friday, November 23, 2012

Just Another Catholic in Exile: Composer Peter Philips

Now whirling in my CD player, this recording of works of Peter Philips, contemporary of William Byrd, "Cantiones Sacrae Quinis Vocibus". The Tudor Consort and Peter Walls performing on the Naxos Early Music label:

Peter Philips (1561-1628) stands with William Byrd (1543-1623) among the greatest composers of the Counter Reformation. These two English Catholic recusants composed sacred polyphony which is unsurpassed in sophistication and interest. Unlike Byrd, who remained in England, protected from serious legal harassment for his beliefs largely by official recognition of his remarkable gifts as a musician, Philips chose to live in exile on the continent.

Philips’ career was determined by his religious convictions. He is first heard of as a fourteen-year-old choirboy at St Paul’s in London. The person responsible for him there was Samuel Westcote, who was frequently in trouble with the authorities for his recusancy. In 1582, shortly after Westcote’s death, Philips fled England - and we are told that he did so "pour la foy Catholique". He went first to the English College at Douai where, at that very time, the Catholic English translation of the Bible, an answer to Protestant translations, was under way. (The Douai/Rheims New Testament appeared in 1582; the Old Testament was to follow in 1609). He then went on to the English College in Rome, which at that time provided refuge for a number of religious exiles. Philips remained at the English College for three years and was appointed organist. He was, therefore, in Rome at the height of Palestrina’s fame. Moreover, in 1585 Felice Anerio, Palestrina’s successor at the Papal Chapel, was appointed maestro di cappella at the English College, and so worked with Philips. Philips included music by Palestrina and Anerio in some of his own publications. In other words, he was thoroughly conversant with the riches of late-sixteenth-century Roman polyphony.

In 1585 Philips left Rome in the service of another English Catholic, Lord Thomas Paget. Together they travelled through Spain, France, and present-day Belgium. Paget died early in 1590, and Philips settled in Antwerp, where he married and "mainteyned him self by teachinge of children of the virginals being very cunning thereon". In 1593 he visited Amsterdam "to sie and heare an excellent man of his faculties" (Sweelinck). On his way back from Amsterdam, he was taken to The Hague for interrogation, on suspicion of plotting against Queen Elizabeth.

Four years later, he became a member of the household of the Archduke Albert, the regent of the Spanish Netherlands, and there he spent the rest of his working life. Thus, in this final and longest stage of his career, he illustrates quite literally the charge, made in 1630, that ‘Though all our Recusants be the King of Englands subjects, yet too many of them be the King of Spaines servants’.

Read the rest here. Thomas Paget had been the Third Baron Paget until 1589, when he was attainted of treason for supposedly plotting against Elizabeth I. His title was forfeit and he returned to Spain as an exile. Try to imagine Philips's terror at being arrested and questioned in Amsterdam--evidently he was able to present some facts that convinced Elizabethan authorities that he had not conspired against her. Becoming part of the household of the Archduke Albert provided more protection; not even exile guaranteed safety from Elizabeth I's "police state".


  1. This cd has always been one of the favorites in my collection. The meeting of formal composition and devotional intimacy sets Philips apart, in my opinion. He was a very English composer and a very Catholic Englishman.

    The suffering he endured for his faith, far from his home - which had apostatized - must have been terrible. Something of that reflective quality comes through in these cantiones.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Timothy Thomas; I have just discovered this composer and intend to explore more of his work from Cantiones Sacrae Quinis Vocibus and beyond.