Partial clip of the Post-Communion motet "Civitas sancti tui" performed by the schola of the church of Saint Vincent Ferrer in New York City, Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019
I'm stepping out of my normal subject for a day because I've been reflecting on something that struck me on Ash Wednesday. I attended Mass at a nearby parish that is not my own. The Mass happened to be quite beautiful, with a capella music provided by their professional choir. Two of the works chosen for the choir were by the Elizabethan English composer William Byrd. At the Offertory the choir sang the motet "Ne irascaris Domine satis" (based on Isaiah 64:9) and after Communion they sang "Civitas sancti tui" (Isaiah 64:10), which is the piece they are singing in the clip at the top of this page.
Byrd was a very distinguished composer and was extremely unusual for that era because, although an acknowledged Catholic (a "recusant") he held the high position of composer and organist in Queen Elizabeth's Chapel Royal, her principal place of worship. He composed music for both the still virtually newborn Anglican church and for the private Catholic Masses which he and his own family attended.
Recording of "Ne irascaris Domine" by the English group Stile Antico
Many of Byrd's Masses and motets that were intended for Catholic use are written so as to be available to small groups of three, four or five voice parts, instead of the often elaborate compositions for the up to eight or more voice parts that could be supplied by the official church of England. Since the recusant Masses were private, one may even say secret, they could depend for music only on those who were part of the group already: family members, servants, trusted friends. It is often stated that these works of Byrd's are actually his finest works, the ones into which he put his entire soul.
Recording of "Civitas sancti tui" by the Tudor Consort
One of the elements of the motets that is striking is how deeply they express sadness and a desperate longing. As such, of course, they are perfect for the tone of sadness, remorse, thoughtfulness and longing for God that characterizes the beginning of Lent. But, as I listened to the singers at church on Ash Wednesday, I thought of those people in 16th century England, huddled around a makeshift altar in a guarded room in the middle of a hostile state. All were there at terrible risk, from the priest who risked death, to the smallest child whose parents might end penniless from the fines or even die in prison. And I wondered as I listened if we are grateful enough for our own freedom to be there that day. And I also wondered how long, in the current climate, we will be able to do this or if, in the future, we too may have to retreat behind closed doors to pray.
May all those who suffered through those terrible times and are now with God pray for us. May the English martyrs pray for us as we begin the season of Lent in 2019, openly as they could not.
© M. Duffy, 2019