This year I am embarking on a new project as an entrepreneur who leads cultural tours to England, specializing in trips to listen to great choral services in cathedrals. My dear friend Jim and I are building a tour company, our first trip is scheduled for May 2016, and I’ve been working on the itinerary. What a fun activity – planning a dream choral trip to England. Jim isn’t really into choral music – he’s more of a Logistics Guy. But for me, this is heaven.
It’s had me thinking about what it is in early choral music that I find so moving, and resonates with me so deeply.
When I was in high school I was introduced for the first time to William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus. William Byrd was a Catholic living in Protestant England. And “Protestant” doesn’t go far enough to describe the politics of Queen Elizabeth’s chief advisors, William Cecil and Francis Walsingham. These were men who had lived through the reign of Elizabeth’s sister, the Catholic Mary Tudor, and saw the religious wars that were threatening to destroy the Protestant Hugenots in France. The Pope, seeing Elizabeth as a bastard (Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon was alive when Anne Boleyn gave birth to Elizabeth, making her illegitimate) excommunicated her, and released her subjects from any vows they took to obey her. Cecil and Walsingham saw plots everywhere. Under Walsingham, they built the first modern espionage network to ferret out the threats against Elizabeth, using torture at a greater rate than any time in England’s history before or since. Anything that seemed in the least bit Catholic, or “popish” was outlawed including rosaries, statues of the Virgin Mary, or relics. Women were forbidden from praying to saints or Mary during childbirth. There was one way to pray: to Jesus, through the Bible, and that was it.
It was into this cloud of suspicion that William Byrd published his amazing music, and received permission to practice his religion. He wrote Protestant music for the Anglican church including some of the greatest anthems in English choral history, but he also wrote music for Catholics, including music for the Latin Mass (which had been outlawed). He wrote Masses for three, four, or five voices, so that Catholics who were part of an illicit celebration of Mass in private homes could choose based on how many singers they had, and of what voices. They would sit around a table and sing, one or two to a part.
He also wrote an Ave Verum Corpus, which smacks of Catholicism as much as any Mass:
|Ave, verum corpus
natum de Maria Virgine,
Vere passum immolatum
in Cruce pro homine,
Cujus latus perforatum
unda fluxit (et) sanguine,
Esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.
born of the Virgin Mary,
Who truly suffered, sacrificed
on the Cross for man,
Whose pierced side overflowed
with water and blood,
Be for us a foretaste
In the test of death.
When I sang these words in high school, I had no idea the meaning behind them. I did know that Byrd was a Catholic living under a Protestant Queen, but that was it. I didn’t understand that the opening lines, “hail, true body” was, in many ways, treasonous. People had been dying for nearly half a century because of which way they fell on the True Presence debate: that is, whether the Communion bread and wine is truly the body and bloody of Christ, or if it’s allegorical. By praising the True Body, Byrd is coming down clearly on the Catholic side, stepping out on a limb that could be deadly if he lost the protection of his Queen, who famously didn’t want to make windows into men’s souls. In fact, when Elizabeth died, he wrote a letter to her successor, the Protestant King James I, asking that his liberties of worship be kept intact.
As a teenager with raging hormones who felt isolated and cooped up in my tiny Amish country town, this music, filled with such longing, was a door to another world. I always loved history because I love feeling connected to the people who came before me. But here, in early music, was a way that I could be intimately connected to them – I could sing the music they wrote, sung in much the same way they would have heard it, and be instantly transported through time and space.
When I was 24 I moved to England and spent my time going to choral Evensong services in cathedrals and chapels throughout the country. Evensong is a service from Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer in which most of the prayers are sung, and despite the fact that it is rooted in Anglicanism, it has always seemed to be full of mysticism to me. I’d go to Westminster Abbey after work, and in the winter, as the light was fading and the candles were flickering in the shadows, I would sit in the choir stalls and become absorbed into the harmonies and polyphony, and it seemed that I was part of this community of worshippers going back a thousand years.
This music, full of history, angst, and passion, speaks to me and touches my soul in ways that no other music ever has. Oh, I love all kinds of music. I listen to the Sirius XM Hits 1 station as much as Symphony Hall. Big Band music of the 40’s is in regular rotation on my Spotify, and since I live in Spain I listen to a lot of Spanish pop music, some of which could even be called hip hop. I hate labels on music – good music is good music, be it Tiesto or Tchaikovsky. But nothing touches me quite like early choral music, which makes me feel both alive, and part of something bigger than me, in ways that no other kind of music ever has. Singing in choirs, singing the anthems in Evensong services, sharing the experience with others just makes it that much more exciting.
I am excited to plan this journey next year, and if you are also touched by early choral music, I’d encourage you to go to our site and check out the tour. You will be traveling with other like-minded individuals who all share a passion for music and history. I can’t wait to see where this trip takes us!