HIS MONTH I attended a wonderful lecture by the eminent church historian, Eamon Duffy. Dr. Duffy is undoubtedly most famous for his 1992 book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, which revolutionized his field’s understanding of Tudor English piety.
The lecture was hosted at The Catholic University of America, which presented Duffy with the Johannes Quasten Medal, an annual academic award presented by the university’s School of Theology and Religious Studies. The title of the lecture was “Praying the Counter-Reformation in Elizabethan England,” and its focus was the tradition of vernacular prayer manuals in Britain before and after Trent.
What interested me most, however, was a brief aside mentioned in the lecture. Duffy brought up the joint project published by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis in 1575. This collaborative work is commonly known as the Cantiones sacrae (although the formal title is actually Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur). Written in honor of the seventeenth year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the collection features 17 motets from each of the two composers.
Historically, the Cantiones sacrae were a financial failure. In his lecture, Duffy suggested a theory for why they were not a successful publication. He began by noting the titles of some of the motets:
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna
Miserere mihi Domine
Da mihi auxilium
Domine secundum actum meum
O lux beata Trinitas
If one examines the texts of these and the other motets in the collection, Duffy argued, it becomes apparent that they reflect some very Catholic themes. In particular, the theme of prayer for the dead recurs in several of the pieces; another clear theme is God’s mercy as it applies to the works of man. Duffy made the point that these rather Catholic texts may serve as an explanation for why the Cantiones sacrae were not well received in the post-Reformation period during which they were published.
This theory is especially believable in light of the scholarly research showing that Byrd grew increasingly active with Catholicism beginning in the early 1570’s. Queen Elizabeth is said to have mostly overlooked Byrd’s Catholicism. The failure of his 1575 collection, however, shows that it was perhaps not overlooked by the contemporary music market.