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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 16 The End of Perfection
Richard Taruskin

The religious predicaments of the Elizabethan period and its steadily eroding religious “settlement” were epitomized in the recusant William Byrd’s long career as the country’s foremost musician, a career that spanned virtually the whole of Elizabeth’s reign. At the beginning, Elizabeth’s tolerance of ritualism within the Church of England made it possible for a high art of Latin polyphony to flourish again. Yet it was a changed art nevertheless. It had been affected—one might even say contaminated—by continental styles, and proudly so. Byrd was the great protagonist of this change, which in the face of English withdrawal from the universal church might seem a bit paradoxical. Yet it reflected in its particular domain the same heightened cultural commerce with continental Europe that distinguished the Elizabethan age generally.

Henry VIII had begun importing continental musicians for his personal entourage as early as 1520. One of them, Philip van Wilder, a Fleming brought over as a “lewter” (lutenist), was a particularly gifted composer. His lovely Pater noster for high voices (Ex. 16-16), though published in Antwerp in 1554 (a year after the composer’s death), was probably composed for the “young mynstrells” at Henry’s court, a boys’ ensemble in Philip’s charge. It counts as one of the earliest ars perfecta compositions to be written on English soil.

The First English CosmopoliteThe First English Cosmopolite

ex. 16-16 Philip van Wilder, Pater noster, beginning

Another famous émigré was Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543–88), a Bolognese composer whom Elizabeth hired in 1562. According to a Venetian intelligence report a dozen years later, Alfonso had become “one of the grooms of the Queen’s privy chamber, [who] enjoys extreme favour with her Majesty on account of his being an excellent musician.”17 Royal favor meant royal protection, which could be a critical matter for Catholics like Alfonso—and like Byrd, who was able to hold high official positions, at least for a while, without converting to the new faith (although he did furnish it with some excellent music, including a Great Service for “Evensong,” the Anglican Vespers-plus-Compline).

Even later, though cited for recusancy, and perhaps fined (and although at least one recusant was actually arrested for owning one of Byrd’s late books), he was never greatly troubled by the law—although, as we shall see, he gave good cause for trouble—because Elizabeth did not think it impossible for her favorites (such as the Earl of Worcester, one of Byrd’s patrons) to be “a stiff papist and a good subject.”18 Despotisms have arbitrary beneficiaries as well as victims.

Alfonso’s impact on the new English church music was particularly pronounced, as Byrd’s first important publication makes clear. This was a volume of motets called Cantiones quae ab argumento sacras vocantur, which Byrd published jointly with his mentor (and possible teacher) Tallis in 1575, five years after his appointment as organist to the royal chapel. (Tallis’s “Onatalux,”quotedin Ex. 16-15, comes from this book.) Amazingly enough, it was the first book of Latin-texted music ever printed in England, and Tallis and Byrd were themselves literally the publishers, having been granted a patent from the queen giving them a monopoly on English music-printing and staved manuscript paper.

Dedicated (naturally) to Elizabeth (and, it follows, probably used in her chapel), the volume opens with a series of prefatory and dedicatory poems that positively trumpet rapprochement between the musicians of England—formerly insular and print-shy but now aggressively modern and entrepreneurial—and the great names of ecumenical Europe: Gombert, Clemens, even the relative newcomer Orlando (de Lassus; see the next chapter), and their ambassador, as it were, to the English, “Alfonso, our Phoenix.”19 What the poem proclaims the music confirms. Joseph Kerman, who took the trouble to go through the work of Alfonso Ferrabosco for the first time since the sixteenth century, was able to establish that William Byrd owed his virtuosity in the techniques of the ars perfecta—a virtuosity the older Tallis never quite achieved—directly to the example of Alfonso, his Bolognese contemporary and companion in the royal service. The works of Byrd that show Ferrabosco’s impress most faithfully, moreover, were precisely the ones he chose for his debut appearance in print.20 The Italianate motets in the 1575 Cantiones, most of which have liturgical texts (though of course not Marian ones) and were clearly meant for official service use, assert Byrd’s claim as a contender on the ecumenical stage.

As his career went on, however, he had less and less opportunity to play the role of official church composer in the ars perfecta style. There was obviously no room for a Palestrina in England. There was no chance to make one’s reputation composing Masses, and the range of suitable texts for motets was stringently circumscribed by the narrow limits of Catholic-Anglican overlap (mainly psalms). A composer like Byrd was thus confronted with a choice. One could shift one’s career focus over to the Anglican sphere altogether, which (given Byrd’s connections) would by no means have required personal conversion, but would have entailed renunciation of the calling for which one had trained—and renunciation, too, perhaps, of a sense of personal authenticity. Or one could renounce the official arena and withdraw into the closet world of recusancy.

As life became more difficult for Catholics in England, Byrd took the latter course. He and Palestrina were comparably devoted to the universal church, but where Palestrina’s devotion brought him worldly fame and fortune, Byrd’s meant the virtual relinquishment of his career. In contrast to Palestrina, Byrd’s pursuit of the ars perfecta, while it arguably brought the style to its climax of perfection, ran entirely counter to the composer’s worldly self-interest. There is not another case like it in the history of Western church music, which, through Byrd, reached a stylistic climax on an agonizing note of personal sacrifice and risk.

Withdrawal took place in stages. In 1589 and 1591, Byrd published two volumes of Cantiones sacrae, the first dedicated to the Earl of Worcester. These were motets of a very different sort from the ones in the book of 1575. Their texts, no longer liturgical, were biblical pastiches, mostly of intensely plaintive or penitential character: O Domine, adjuva me (“Deliver me, O Lord”), Tristitia et anxietas (“Sorrow and distress”), Infelix ego (“Unhappy am I”). Others, with texts lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity, easily support allegorical readings that may covertly have expressed and solaced the sentiments of the oppressed Catholic minority. One in particular—Circumspice, Jerusalem—has been linked persuasively with the arrival from France of a party of Jesuit missionaries with whom Byrd is known to have consorted: “Look around toward the East, O Jerusalem,” the text proclaims, “and see the joy that is coming to you from God! Behold, your sons are coming, whom you sent away and dispersed!” These pastiche motets, it is now widely believed, were never meant for service use, but rather provided (under cover of the irreproachable source of their individual verses) a body of “pious chamber music,” as Kerman has called it, for the use of recusants at home.


(17) Richard Charteris, Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder (1543–1588): A Thematic Catalogue of His Music with a Biographical Calendar (New York, 1984), p. 14.

(18) Memoir of Elizabeth Hastings, Lady Somerset and Countess of Worcester (http://www.kugelblitz.co.uk/StGeorge/Documents/2002%20biographies.pdf).

(19) Ferdinand Richardson, “In Eandem Thomae Tallisii, et Guilielmi Birdi Musicam,” Cantiones, Quae ab Argumento Sacrae Vocantur (London, 1575), facsimile edition (Leeds: Boethius Press, 1976), n.p.

(20) See Joseph Kerman, “Old and New in Byrd’s Cantiones Sacrae, in Essays on Opera and English Music in Honour of Sir Jack Westrup, ed. F. W. Sternfeld, N. Fortune, and E. Olleson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975), pp. 25–43.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 16 The End of Perfection. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016010.xml