Friday, May 4, 2018

The Catholic English Martyrs in England and the USA


I stated yesterday that the Feast of the English Martyrs is celebrated in the Dioceses of England, but the Memorial of the English Martyrs is celebrated in the United States by the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. St. Gregory the Great Ordinariate parish in Chestnut, Massachusetts provides these notes on today's Feast/Memorial:

A feast day not celebrated in the United States anywhere except the Ordinariate falls today, the fourth day of May; it honors those Catholics martyred for remaining true to the “old faith,” mostly during the century and a half following Henry VIII’s decision to split the English Church from its ancient submission to the See of Peter.

These men and women were called “Recusants” because they refused to attend the services of the new Anglican church; the name comes from the Latin verb “recusare” — to refuse or object. The laws under which they suffered began under Elizabeth I with a statute against “Popish recusants” in 1593; it and subsequent laws (levying many penalties, up to and including death) were finally repealed by Oliver Cromwell (of all people) in 1650: but his intention was the relief of “other” non-conformers, the Calvinist Puritans; during the Puritan Commonwealth Catholics and Anglicans were united through persecution by Government. The recusant laws, per se, were not reinstated with reestablishment of the monarchy in 1660; but legal persecution of English Catholics only came to an end with Catholic Emancipation — in 1829. . . .


Looking farther afield--the nearest Ordinariate Parish to me is in Kansas City, Missouri--I noted that the Men's Choir of Westminster Cathedral in London is singing one of the Masses composed by William Byrd and two of his motets at the evening (17:30) Mass to celebrate the Feast of the English Martyrs. Martin Baker has selected the Mass for Three Voices, Ne Irascaris Domine, and Civitas sancti tui.

Since William Byrd knew some of the of the Jesuit missionaries and certainly met St. Robert Southwell, singing his work at Mass today is most appropriate. As John Milsom wrote in the liner notes of the Westminster Cathedral Choir's 2014 recording of Byrd's Three Masses:

The Englishness of Byrd’s Masses must also be mentioned, for these settings do not sound remotely like the Masses of Lassus or Palestrina. This is partly because of the way they were made, partly because of the way they allude to their Tudor past. Unlike most other Catholic composers of his generation, Byrd composed his three Masses freely, without directly quoting any pre-existing music. Hence the contrast with Palestrina and Lassus: those two composers habitually based their Masses on models, such as a motet or a plainchant melody, so that the Mass becomes a commentary on that model. Byrd, in contrast, simply took the words of the Mass as they came to him, and savoured them intuitively, using whatever melodies came into his head. Sometimes he makes audible allusion to the musical styles of his Tudor past, for instance through the turn of a melodic phrase or the choice of a chord or a selection of texture. By doing so, he invoked the music of his boyhood—the truly Catholic music of the reigns of Henry VIII (died 1547), and of England’s last Catholic monarch, Queen Mary (reigned 1553–8), which coincided with the years when Byrd was a boy chorister. A nostalgia for the Tudor past therefore haunts these works, especially in the Mass for four voices, which was the first to be composed.

It is in fact possible to date the three Masses with reasonable precision. In 1589 and 1591, Byrd published two collections of motets—called by him ‘sacred songs’ (Cantiones sacrae)—that summed up his achievement to that date. Immediately after that, Byrd’s mind seems to have turned to the words of the Catholic Mass, and his three settings were published in quick succession between around 1592 and 1595. The precise years of publication are unknown, since the prints themselves have no title pages; they are simply slender pamphlets of sheet music, headed with the name ‘W. Byrd’. Careful detective work, however, shows that the Mass for four voices, which is the most intimate and intense of the settings, came first. It was followed a year later by the Mass for three voices, which is a smaller and tighter work, and then by the Mass for five voices, which is the most serene of the three. This five-voice Mass sets the tone for Byrd’s next and final project, the great cycle of Gradualia—settings of liturgical texts for the Catholic calendar from Advent to Trinity—which went to press in two volumes in 1605 and 1607.


The two motets are usually interpreted to refer to the situation of Catholics in England:

Ne irascaris Domine satis,
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos.


Be not angry, O Lord,
and remember our iniquity no more.
Behold, we are all your people.


Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est,
Jerusalem desolata est.

Your holy city has become a wilderness.
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.


David Cashman offers this analysis:

Ne irascaris Domine is a five-part Latin motet by the Catholic English composer, William Byrd (1543-1623). It is one of three works known as the 'Jerusalem' motets (along with Tribulations civitatum and Vide Domine afflictionem nostram). Byrd wrote these motets in the 1580s as an act of protest against the Elizabethan Catholic persecutions. As his text, Byrd cunningly chooses here an irreproachable passage of scripture from Isaiah, telling of the Babylonian captivity.

Ne irascaris' general atmosphere of quiet contemplation coupled with solid polyphonic writing make this a deservedly well known work. Departing from his usual tradition, Byrd sets the appeal to God of Ne irascaris Domine polyphonically, continuing this writing throughout the work. Byrd uses minimal resources (in particular, the melody, which does not move out of the range of a fourth until the end of the work) to create a classic.

The second part of this work (from
Civitas sancti) is well-known as the Anglican hymn Bow thine ear. Despite the structure being thus truncated, the skilled contrapoint and expressive writing of the original make this one of the gems of the Anglican hymn tradition.

Holy Venerable, Blessed, and Canonized Martyrs of England and Wales, pray for us!

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