Monday, February 8, 2016

William Byrd and John Donne: The Crux of the Piece

From the Gramophone magazine blog, how a composer was inspired by William Byrd to write a musical setting of a John Donne Holy Sonnet:

The more I thought and read about Byrd, and the idea of a ‘Credo’ or ‘creed’, I believe I had potentially the most interesting opportunity.

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.

It seemed appropriate, therefore, to use Donne’s poem as the crux of my piece, along with interpolations from Campion and Southwell and William Byrd's will.

This is the Holy Sonnet Alexander L’Estrange refers to:

Show me dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robb'd and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild Dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she'is embrac'd and open to most men.

More about ORA, the group which has commissioned this work and the album set for release this week, here. Update: Here's more information from Harmonia Mundi about the CD, which I've ordered.

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