Arts & Culture | Religious Upheaval | Renaissance | Classical
Once hailed by the Pope as ‘Defender of the Faith’ against Martin Luther, Henry VIII made an about-face when he declared himself primate of the Church of England in order to grant himself a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The political, religious and social results of Henry’s action are well-known; the impact on music was also far-reaching.
In the century leading up to 1536, England had established a musical ascendancy unprecedented in its history, exporting its style to France. The state of English sacred music at the beginning of the sixteenth century can be ascertained from the Eton Choirbook, a beautiful manuscipt of polyphony from the last generation of great Catholic composers in England. It contains works by the major English musicians of the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, including five pieces by Cornysh.
A Bad Climate for Composers
Although Henry VIII’s restructuring of the church was more political than spiritual, the ensuing upheaval – and in particular the danger faced by any public figure showing reluctance to affirm the king’s claims – had a discouraging effect on composition for the rest of his reign. After his death in 1547, the tumultuous reigns of the Protestant Edward VI and the Catholic Mary I, with their profound changes not only in orthodoxy but in liturgical detail, provided an even less welcoming climate for composers. Matters improved with the accession of the music-loving Elizabeth I in 1558, although religious tensions were still present. A few brave and flexible musicians did leave their mark. Among these Tallis stands out for his ability to survive and flourish under four Tudor monarchs, writing whatever music was the order of the day and, apparently, keeping his own counsel about his beliefs.
It was in this spiritual minefield that Byrd lived his life. Unlike Tallis, he was a single-mindedly devoted Catholic. That he managed not only to survive fines and imprisonment, but also to have a successful and productive career, is a tribute not only to his talent but also to Elizabeth’s relative tolerance – and perhaps to her love of music as well.
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