ITH THE PASSING of Queen Elizabeth (requiescat in pace), British affairs have been very much in the public consciousness, as we all reflect on her life and career. English music was also the subject of some a recent post by my colleague, Jeff Ostrowski, considering the special stylistic qualities of pre-Reformation English music, and the unique way the Protestant reformation unfolded in Britain. I have also written about this subject in a previous post.
“Recusant” Catholics • One related topic—which interests me greatly—considers the musical lives of English Catholics in the decades after Elizabeth I’s decisive religious settlement. Some prominent English musicians of the generation born after Henry VIII’s break with Rome were Catholic: William Byrd and John Dowland. Byrd wrote wonderful music that seems to capture the poignant character of recusant (that is, refusing to conform to state-sponsored Protestantism) life. But more specifically, how did Catholics living at this time (under circumstances ranging from quiet toleration to outright persecution depending on the local situation) view the music of those English composers who wrote at the very end of the glorious tradition of festal Masses and motets?
The Phenomenal Paston • A project I’ve been working on for years looks at a specific set of musical books belonging to the recusant Edward Paston (1550–1630). I have mentioned these books in passing before. Paston, or his hired arranger, takes all the lower parts of polyphonic compositions and arranges (intabulates) them for lute, leaving only the top part, presumably to be sung. The material in these collections is eclectic: secular madrigals and chansons; consort songs by Byrd; continental motets by Lassus, Marenzio, and Victoria; English motets by White, Tallis, Byrd, and Ferrabosco; and even entire Mass settings by Fayrfax and Taverner.
Illegal Polyphony? • What were these settings used for? They could have been merely for private devotion, to be sung in gatherings of like-minded souls eager for spiritual and musical consolation. Another intriguing possibility is that the sacred works could have been used liturgically at small and illicit Masses celebrated in recusant homes by intrepid Jesuits. Either way, the whole collection is deeply moving to me, since it represents a longing for a spiritual connection to the past in the face of incomprehensible liturgical and religious upheaval. The connections to the experience of aesthetically minded Catholics living today hardly need to be spelled out.
A Different Elizabeth • Here are two videos from a recent concert performance my wife Elizabeth and I gave of this music. Both are pieces written in the old, pre-Reformation, English style, saturated as it is with both plainchant and with that unmistakable English character. I hope we can record more of these in the future.
Paston Is Not Past • While it was lovely to be able to perform this music in a beautifully appointed Catholic church, it is worth considering the original context, in which such a public performance would have been illegal. Even in those circumstances, Paston managed to preserve a thing of great beauty, for which we are grateful.