Monday, November 22, 2010

"Simply praise God with 'songs of joy'"! [St. Augustine]

By coincidence, the American Music Awards aired yesterday, the same day as the commemoration of noted English musicians John Merbecke [Marbeck] (c. 1510-1585), Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), and William Byrd (c. 1540-1623). And today we commemorate St. Cecilia (??-c. 223), a Roman martyr and, since the 16th century, patroness of musicians.

Probably a native of Beverley in Yorkshire, John Merbecke [var., Marbeck, Merbeck] apparently was a boy chorister at St. George's Chapel, Windsor, and was employed as an organist there from about 1541-1543. In 1543 he was convicted with four others of heresy and sentenced to stake, but was pardoned through the intervention of Bishop Stephen Gardiner, of Winchester. An English Concordance of the Bible which Merbecke had been preparing was however confiscated and destroyed. A later version of this work, the first of its kind in English, was published in 1550 with a dedication to Edward VI.

In the same year Merbecke published The Booke of Common Praier Noted, in order to provide for musical uniformity in the use of the first Prayer Book of Edward VI. The liturgy was set to semi-rhythmical melodies, partly adapted from Gregorian chant. The book was rendered obsolete, however, when the Prayer Book was revised in 1552. It was however rediscovered in the 19th century, and adaptations for the Anglican 1662 liturgy are still in use.

Thomas Tallis, an English composer, flourished as a church musician in 16th century Tudor England. He occupies a primary place in anthologies of English church music, and is considered among the best of England's early composers. Little is known about Tallis's early life, but he was probably born toward the close of the reign of Henry VII. His first known appointment to a musical position was as organist of Dover Priory, a Benedictine priory c. 1530. He then moved to London, probably in the autumn of 1538 to the Augustinian abbey of the Holy Cross at Waltham, and remained until the abbey was dissolved in 1540.

Tallis's next appears at Canterbury Cathedral. He was sent to court as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543, where he composed and performed for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth I. As organist and composer for these monarchs, Tallis managed to avoid current political and religious controversies, though, like William Byrd, he stayed an "unreformed Roman Catholic." Tallis was adept in switching the style of his compositions to suit the vastly different tastes of the kings and queens whom he served. Tallis certainly stood out, among other important composers of his time, because of his versatility of style and his general, more consistently easy and certain handling of his material. Tallis married around 1552, his wife, Joan, outliving him by four years. They apparently had no children. Late in his life he lived in Greenwich, possibly close to the royal palace. Thomas Tallis died peacefully in his house in Greenwich on November 23, 1585. He was buried in the chancel of the parish of St Alfege's Church.

One of Tallis' most notable students was William Byrd. Byrd was born in London, the son of a Thomas Byrd (not the Thomas Byrd of the Chapel Royal), about whom little is known. He had two brothers and four sisters. A reference in the prefatory material in the Tallis/Byrd Cantiones of 1575 clearly indicates that Byrd was a pupil of Thomas Tallis, then the leading composing member of the Chapel Royal Choir.

Byrd's first known professional employment was an organist and choirmaster of Lincoln Cathedral, a post which he held from 1563 until 1572. His career at Lincoln wasn't entirely trouble-free; in  November, 1569, the Dean and Chapter cited him for ‘certain matters alleged against him’ as the result of which his salary was suspended. Since Puritanism was influential at Lincoln, it's possible that the allegations involved over-elaborate choral polyphony or organ playing! A second directive that same month spelled out detailed instructions as to how Byrd was to use the organ in the liturgy. In  September, 1568, Byrd married Julian Birley, and enjoyed a long-lasting and fruitful union which produced at least seven children.

Byrd was appointed to the prestigious post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572. Almost from the outset Byrd is named as ‘organist. This position vastly increased Byrd's opportunities to widen his scope as a composer and also to make contacts at the court. Queen Elizabeth I was a moderate Protestant who steered clear of the more extreme forms of Puritanism and retained a fondness for elaborate ritual, besides being a music lover and keyboard player herself. Byrd's output of Anglican church music is surprisingly small, but it stretches the limits of elaboration then regarded as acceptable by some reforming Protestants who regarded it as a distraction from the Word of God.

In about 1594, now in his early fifties, and as a far as the Chapel Royal, seemingly in semi-retirement, he moved with his family to Stondon Massey, a small village in Essex. The main reason for the move seems to have been the proximity of Byrd's patron Sir John Petre. Byrd remained in Stondon Massey until his death on July 4, 1623, which was noted in the Chapel Royal Check Book in a unique entry describing him as ‘a Father of Musick’.

Byrd's output of about 470 compositions amply justifies his reputation as one of the great masters of European Renaissance music. Perhaps his most impressive achievement as a composer was his ability to transform so many of the main musical forms of his day and stamp them with his own identity. Having grown up in an age in which Latin polyphony was largely confined to liturgical items, he synthesized the English and continental models of the motet. He virtually created the Tudor consort and keyboard fantasia. He also raised the consort song, the church anthem and the Anglican service setting to new heights. Finally, despite a general aversion to the madrigal, he succeeded in cultivating secular vocal music in an impressive variety of forms.

According to 5th century sources, Cecilia was of noble birth and was betrothed to a pagan, Valerian. Her witness to the faith allegedly resulted in the conversion of Valerian and his brother, Tiburtius. Eventually, because of this, the brothers were martyred and, while burying them, Cecilia herself was arrested. It is said that, in 1599, when an earlier church on the site of Cecilia's villa in the Trastevere was rebuilt, her tomb was opened and her body was found in an incorrupt state, but quickly disintegrated when exposed to the air. Sculptor Stefano Maderno, who witnessed this, later created a life-sized statue, enshrined in the Church of Santa Caecilia in Rome, as he saw her: "lying on the right side...her knees drawn together and seeming to be asleep..." She had been at least partially beheaded.

Since the 16th century, Cecilia has been immortalized as the patroness of musicians, possibly because of a misreading of a line in the Acts of the martyrs: " the singing of an organ she sang in her heart to the Lord, saying: 'May my heart be unsullied forever, that I may not be thwarted in my vows." The Flemish artist, Jan Van Eyck, was the first to depict Cecilia, seated at an organ. An indelible childhood memory of mine is of a large framed picture of Cecilia at the organ, which was kept in a spare storage room in my grandparents' home where I used to "play Mass". Cecilia was declared patroness of the Academy of Music, founded in Rome in 1584, and has been mentioned in many musical compositions and poems. She is also named in the Canon of the Roman Latin Mass.

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