Gramophone guest blog

How William Byrd inspired my new choral work 'Show me, deare Christ'

Alexander L'EstrangeWed 3rd February 2016

Alexander L’Estrange reflects on the process of composing a companion piece for a Renaissance classic

When I was approached by Suzi Digby and her new choir ORA to write a musical reflection on a movement from William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices – specifically the Credo movement - my initial reactions were excitement and determination to find an angle that didn’t rely merely on the musical material, rich as it is.

The Credo being the longest and perhaps most substantial movement of Byrd’s masterpiece was also somewhat daunting – especially as Suzi wanted me to create a reflection on a similar scale (10 minutes). Would I set the rather loquacious and familiar words of the Latin Credo itself (Credo in unum Deum, patrem omnipotentem, etc)? If not, what text would I use?

The more I thought and read about Byrd, and the idea of a ‘Credo’ or ‘creed’, I believe I had potentially the most interesting opportunity.

It was fascinating to reflect on what the words ‘I believe’ would have meant for William Byrd as a well-known recusant - a Catholic who refused to go to church. In Elizabethan England, being caught with Latin ‘popish’ books, celebrating Catholic Mass or, even worse, harbouring a priest in your house, could mean jail. For Jesuit martyrs like Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and countless others, their fate was much worse: hanging, drawing and quartering and then your body parts being boiled in salt water and cumin seed before being displayed on pikes around the city. Lovely!

So it is all the more amazing that Byrd was able to write and publish his three Latin masses in the 1590s. Remember this was effectively illegal music that only someone courageous enough to risk accusations of treason would buy or sing. Church choirs certainly wouldn’t be queuing up to sing it.

In the course of my research, I eventually came to churchman and poet John Donne's Holy Sonnet XVIII. This poem beautifully expresses Donne’s lifelong despairing of the fragmentation of the church. Donne himself was a Catholic and his brother died in prison, guilty of 'harbouring a seminary priest'. Donne converted to Anglicanism in 1615 and later became Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London. Like Byrd, he would have understood only too well the dichotomy of different brands of the same Christian faith – which continues to challenge the Christian community to this day.

It seemed appropriate, therefore, to use Donne’s poem as the crux of my piece, along with interpolations from Campion and Southwell and William Byrd's will. I also drew on other contemporary sources - namely Latin and English intonations from the Credo (plainchant) and Creed (Marbecke's English setting). I have also made judicious - I hope - use of Byrd’s own music, borrowing themes from his Credo and also short sections of his settings of famous 'gallows texts' chosen by Catholic martyrs as their last utterances - 'In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum' and 'Miserere mei, Deus'.

Alexander L’Estrange's 'Show me, deare Christ' will be premiered by ORA, conducted by Suzi Digby, on February 9 and 10 at the Tower of London. A recording of the work, performed by ORA, will be released by Harmonia Mundi on February 12. For further information, visit: orasingers.com

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