Was Byrd the Shostakovich of his time? Surely the aptness of this analogy has occurred to others. Few matters in musicology were more widely discussed not too long ago than the premise that Dmitry Shostakovich had a close if, as some fervently argued, essentially dissident relationship with Josef Stalin, the de facto leader of the Soviet Union for nearly a quarter century (c.1929-53). Evidence of a similar political relationship between Byrd and England’s long-reigning ruler Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) is mainly confined to discussions in the traditional musicological literature. But readers of the widely distributed New York Review of Books have lately been exposed to claims that Byrd’s great contemporary William Shakespeare had strong ties to the Catholic cause during a time when England was under statutory Protestant rule. Thanks to a seminal essay Joseph Kerman had placed in those same pages some time ago—that has now been complemented and furthered by Kerman himself, Philip Brett, David Mateer, Craig Monson, and others—the NYRB audience at least has been alerted to the circumstance that if there were indeed a dissident platform on which Shakespeare stood, Byrd stood alongside him, and on a much surer footing.
Shostakovich won the remunerative Stalin Prize twice (1947 and 1953). He wrote sincerely patriotic music during wartime, praised Stalin's leadership enthusiastically, and offered a musical tribute to the dictator's grandiose but ill-conceived project to halt the desiccating winds from eastern deserts by planting a vast forest belt. He held various positions of leadership in the Soviet system and eventually joined the Communist Party in 1963. Yet he also composed bitterly satirical works, such as his Antiformalisticheskii Rayok, attacking Soviet positions on the arts that he found objectionable. Overall, many feel that at the core of his work, where he could bring to bear a highly developed musical language fraught with “colossal emotional power,” Shostakovich expressed a consistent and profound disaffection for the Stalinist reign, if not for the Soviet system as a whole.
Byrd enjoyed a position of cultural and economic power in his musical world too, thanks to official ties. Notably, he was a leading member of Elizabeth’s prestigious Chapel Royal. Along with his mentor Thomas Tallis, he also held a royal patent for twenty-one years (1575-96) that put him in charge of a monopoly for printed music, printed music paper and music importation. Not surprisingly, Byrd wrote works for the English state and its religion and in these he often evoked Elizabeth herself, as in his “Queenes Alman” for keyboard, his anthem “O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our queen,” and two madrigalian settings of “This Sweet and Merry Month of May,” which celebrated “Eliza” as “the queen of second Troy.” No one has detected any irony in these works. Yet there is a larger body of music by Byrd, featuring many settings of sacred texts in Latin, which seems poignantly to betray his ties of allegiance to some of the more militant forces of Catholicism, among them the Jesuit missionary movement that was antithetical to the Elizabethan Settlement.
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