Monday, February 22, 2016

Upheld by Stillness: Reflections on Renaissance Gems

I posted a preview of this new CD earlier this month: Upheld by Stillness: Renaissance gems and their reflections - Volume 1: Byrd. I received my copy last Friday and have listened to it several times this past weekend. ORA, founded and conducted by Suzi Digby, is a new vocal group. From their website:

ORA believes that we are in a second Golden Age of choral music, matching that of the Renaissance. It takes the musical experience of old and new masterworks to new levels through its live performances and recordings.

ORA combines the talent of the UK’s leading singers with a fresh and enticing approach to performance. It is not just about singing, though that is at the core of its being, it is also about engaging audiences on many levels with a dramatic and all-encompassing approach to performance that makes true ‘experiences’ out of concerts.

ORA is also about championing contemporary composers. We love the choral music that is being written today and ORA is passionate about commissioning, recording and performing new works. We hope you will share our passion. 

This first CD is the beginning of series of recordings ORA plans to make of Renaissance compositions matched with newly commissioned works. According to this interview, Suzi Digby has many works lined up, and the first one is a blockbuster:

For the 250th anniversary of Tallis's epic Spem in Alium, we have commissioned James MacMillan (considered by some to be the greatest living choral composer) to write a 40-part reflection. This happens to be in 2020: a fortuitous number!

Other forthcoming pairings include...

Ēriks Ešenvalds - Infelix Ego (paired with Byrd’s setting of the same text)

John Barber - Sicut Lilium (with Brumel’s setting)

Jonathan Dove - Vadam et circuibo (with Victoria’s setting)

Ken Burton - Loquebantur (with Tallis’ setting)

Richard Allain - Videte Miraculum (with Tallis’ setting)

Frank Ferko - If Ye Love Me (with Tallis’ setting)

Harry Escott - O Light of Light (with Tallis’ setting of O Nata Lux)

Alec Roth - Night Song (with Tallis’ setting of Te Lucis Ante Terminum)

and a new setting of Psalm 150 to Archbishop Parker’s words in his Psalter, to accompany Tallis’ Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter.

It would make sense for the second CD to be focused on the works of Thomas Tallis, another great English Renaissance composer, if that's what ORA intends. 

The work on this CD that most intrigued me as an historian of the English Reformation and as an English literature major was the one I highlighted in my first post about the CD, Alexander L'Estrange's "Show me, deare Christ". To recall what he said about his thought process in composing this work:

It was fascinating to reflect on what the words ‘I believe’ would have meant for William Byrd as a well-known recusant - a Catholic who refused to go to church. In Elizabethan England, being caught with Latin ‘popish’ books, celebrating Catholic Mass or, even worse, harbouring a priest in your house, could mean jail. For Jesuit martyrs like Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and countless others, their fate was much worse: hanging, drawing and quartering and then your body parts being boiled in salt water and cumin seed before being displayed on pikes around the city. Lovely!

So it is all the more amazing that Byrd was able to write and publish his three Latin masses in the 1590s. Remember this was effectively illegal music that only someone courageous enough to risk accusations of treason would buy or sing. Church choirs certainly wouldn’t be queuing up to sing it.

In the course of my research, I eventually came to churchman and poet John Donne's Holy Sonnet XVIII. This poem beautifully expresses Donne’s lifelong despairing of the fragmentation of the church. Donne himself was a Catholic and his brother died in prison, guilty of 'harbouring a seminary priest'. Donne converted to Anglicanism in 1615 and later became Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London. Like Byrd, he would have understood only too well the dichotomy of different brands of the same Christian faith – which continues to challenge the Christian community to this day.

I don't know if L'Estrange intended this reaction, but I as listened to the music--and even more, read the words he sets to music--I heard a great debate between belief and doubt, between Byrd, Campion, and Southwell on one side and John Donne on the other. William Byrd, the recusant Catholic, and the martyred Saints Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell are confident in their Catholic faith, ready to die for it, or at least pay fines and suffer trouble for it. "Credo in unum Deum . . .  Et unam sanctum catholicam and apostolicam ecclesiam." Donne, on the other hand, is uncertain about where the true Church Jesus founded is: he is not restful in the Anglican church, even though he is one of its ministers, serving as the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, encouraged by King James I. Donne's sonnet is mostly questions, while Byrd, Campion, and Southwell make statements and live and die by them, while Donne finally resolves to court and embrace "thy mild dove" which is "open to most men."

L'Estrange quotes Byrd's last will and testament: " . . . that I may live and die a true and perfect member of the holy Catholic Church, without which I believe there is no salvation for me". St. Edmund Campion is determined " . . . either to win you to Heaven or to die upon your pikes" and L'Estrange also cites his words at the conclusion of his trial with the other priests in 1581: "In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England . . .". And he quotes the poems of St. Robert Southwell too, all juxtaposed with the Latin of the Nicene and Athanasian Creed  ("For unless a person keeps this faith whole and entire, he will undoubtedly be lost forever."). Because the composition ends with the statement of belief from the Credo, it seems the Catholics are more steadfast and resolute than doubting, questioning Donne. 

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