Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The "Battle" for Evensong

BBC Four is advertising a programme to be broadcast on October 17 hosted by Lucy Worsley with the title "Elizabeth I's Battle for God's Music"!

Lucy Worsley investigates the story of the most remarkable creation from the tumultuous and violent era known as the Reformation - choral evensong.

Henry VIII loved religious music, but he loved power more - when he instigated his English Reformation he dramatically split from the ancient Catholic church that controlled much of his country. But in doing so set into motion changes that would fundamentally transform the religious music he loved.

Following Elizabeth I's personal story, Lucy recounts how she and her two siblings were shaped by the changes their father instigated. Elizabeth witnessed both her radically puritan brother Edward bring church music to the very brink of destruction and the terrifying reversals made by her sister Mary - which saw her thrown in the Tower of London forced to beg for her life.

When Elizabeth finally took power she was determined to find a religious compromise - she resurrected the Protestant religion of her brother, but kept the music of her beloved father - music that she too adored. And it was in the evocative service of choral evensong that her ideas about religious music found their ultimate expression.

I know that conflict is what drives plot and that there was lots of conflict during the English Reformation, but some of this language seems a bit over the top! 

Henry VIII never experienced Evensong so his links to Elizabeth's version of "God's Music" seem weak. In what way did the "ancient Catholic church control much" of England? As Thomas More's Poor Souls protested to Henry VIII in The Supplication of Souls, it was clear who had the authority in England--Simon Fish had stated that the Catholic Church was preventing Henry from ruling his people but More denied that completely. Henry VIII was, even before his split from the universal Church, deeply involved in naming bishops, communicating with Church hierarchy--Bishops and Archbishops served the monarchy in diplomacy and administration--the Church and State were separate powers, but they had worked together smoothly for years. Remember that Henry VIII, like his father, even had Cardinal Protectors to argue English positions on ecclesiastical issues to the Pope and the Curia in Rome

Did Edward VI really "bring church music to the very brink of destruction"? Listening to Thomas Tallis's English anthems from that reign might bring that into question. Tallis would compose music for English translations of the Psalms for Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker during Elizabeth I's reign too. Edward VI's reign, through Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer's creation of The Book of Common Prayer, made Evensong possible, combining Vespers and Compline into one prayer service.

What terrifying reversals in Church music did Mary I make? Seems like Worsley is mixing things up here a little bit, referring to the restoration of Catholic worship and unity with the Catholic Church, and the revival of the Heresy Laws by Parliament in the context of changes in religious musical styles. I don't think those reversals "saw" Elizabeth thrown into the Tower, but the Wyatt Rebellion and concerns about Elizabeth's involvement in it as the one who would replace Mary on the throne. Elizabeth I would throw many people into the Tower whenever she felt threatened too. 

Shouldn't Mary's restoration of English polyphony be the main point of this discussion? If Edward was bringing it to the brink of destruction, didn't Mary save it? 

It's a little strong to say that Elizabeth I "was determined to find a religious compromise"; I think most scholars agree that Elizabeth was pragmatic and her Parliament created the religious settlement she wanted but I doubt that she thought of it as a compromise.

Image (public domain): The Pelican Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard. The pelican was thought to wound her breast to nourish her young, and became a symbol of Passion and Eucharist, adopted by Elizabeth portraying herself as the "mother of the Church of England."

Perhaps we'll see it here in the USA on PBS someday to see how this history is really presented.

1 comment:

  1. BBC Choral Evensong used to be broadcast 7 (?) days a week - now reduced to 1 day repeated Sunday. In the 1940's to 1960's it could be followed with any larger 'lay' St. Andrew's Missal - calendars coinciding. Alas no more.