Yet while the fifteenth century was in many ways a glorious age for English music and saw individual composers, no longer anonymous, moving for the first time into the limelight, it was the trauma of the English Reformation from the 1530s on that somehow resulted in an outpouring of immortal music that still speaks to us today. The Reformation was, as Gant pithily puts it, siding with a particular revisionist strand of recent historiography, “an insurrection by the government against its own people…with the added complication that the government kept changing sides.” It produced the dissolution of the monasteries, with the attendant destruction of much of the musical fabric of the country, a revolution in but also a prolonged uncertainty about the status of the liturgy, and a devastating loss of existing books and manuscripts comparable in its effects on musical life to that of the iconoclasm of the 1530s and 1540s upon the visual arts.
Crisis inspired art. If the Elizabethan age was the age of Shakespeare, it was also that of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. The politico-theological ferment that so obviously fed the playwright’s imagination may have, less directly, lent a certain expressive tension to the masses and motets of these two great composers, both royal servants who remained orthodox Catholics in a period of Protestant ascendancy that, for some, amounted to a Protestant terror.
In 1581 the Jesuit missionary Edmund Campion was hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason; a fellow Jesuit, Henry Walpole, wrote a poem in protest, “Why do I Use my Paper, Ink and Pen?” Byrd set it to music. The Recusancy Act of 1593 imposed fines and eventual house arrest on those who failed to attend Anglican worship; between 1592 and 1595 Byrd nonetheless wrote and published his three great settings of the Latin Mass, a service officially outlawed under the new dispensation. Yet Byrd was also, in the midst of all this, a loyal servant of the state: in 1588, after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth had written a poem extolling her triumph, “Look and bow down thine ear, O Lord, from thy bright sphere behold and see thy handmaid and thy handiwork.” Byrd set it to music as part of the victory celebrations.
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Gant dedicates four chapters to the period before, during, and after the English Reformation:
5. The Children of Henry VIII: Reformation and Counter-Reformation, 1547–1558
6. Church Music and Society in Elizabeth’s England, 1558–1603
7. Plots, Scots, Politics and the Beauty of Holiness, 1603–1645