I remember a sunny day more than twenty years ago in Scotland. It was warm, I felt the sunbeams on my skin and the sea breeze in my hair. I stood in awe in front of the east tower of the Cathedral of St Andrews. It was built in 1158 and became the centre of the Medieval Catholic Church in Scotland. After the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century, it was abandoned and fell into ruin. The wall facing east is splendid. The perimeter of what once was the nave is still visible just like the position of the strong pillars that supported the massive roof. What a grandiose building it must have been!
In 1560 the Scottish Reformation Parliament rejected Catholic faith and the authority of Rome. By then the English Renaissance composer William Byrd was 20 years old and studied under the composer and organist Thomas Tallis. He was a devoted Roman Catholic, which did not prevent him to work for the Anglican Church. In 1572 he took up a post at the Chapel Royal, where he shared the duties of organist with Tallis. In 1757 the court granted him the monopoly on importing, printing and publishing music.
When James I. acceded to the throne in 1603 and a more lenient attitude towards Catholics could be expected, Byrd published three beautiful Latin masses for three, four and five voices, all recorded by the Tallis Scholars. A few weeks ago I immersed myself into this music and immediately associated them with my memories of St. Andrews. The grandeur of the Renaissance church reflected by illustrious polyphonic chants in the tradition of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, with whom Byrd was acquainted. Meditative and consoling music for times marked by political and religious strife.
Wherever you look in today’s world, there is no lack of political or religious strife. TV and newspaper headlines, social networks give us our daily dose of depressive news. Byrd’s masses can give you a moment of peace, of beauty, of bliss, of rapture even.
© Charles Thibo