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Old Music Monday: Stile Antico

Since this blog is sort of like the curated museum of Heather’s Mind, I need to start posting more about music.

One of my favorite early music groups is Stile Antico, a polyphonic vocal ensemble founded in 2001.  They have a new album out, The Phoenix Rising, which is getting a lot of regular rotation on Spotify lately.  The first song on the album is Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, which is one of the first pieces of Renaissance music that ever called to me, and is a big part of the reason why I love early music so much.

William Byrd was a composer living during Elizabethan England.  He was a Catholic composer, living under a Protestant Queen.  And it wasn’t just that.  It was that for the past 50 years, England had been schizophrenic with regards to religion.  Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, was awarded the title Defender of the Faith from the Pope for a treatise he wrote bashing Martin Luther, just a few years before he decided that the Pope was a waste of time, and he was going to take some of these new Protestant ideas to justify himself being the head of the Church in England and get himself a quickie divorce.  But Henry didn’t completely embrace Protestantism.  He just wanted to be the head of the Church.  Protestants (heretics) were still regularly tortured and burned.

His son, Edward, was a child when he was crowned, and so relied heavily on his advisers, who were largely Protestant.  So England officially becomes Protestant, and the Catholics go underground.  The Protestants have a party, and there is much rejoicing (to quote Monty Python).

Then Edward dies.  Next up to bat comes Mary I.  Aka Bloody Mary.  Her mother was Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, who was a devout Catholic.  She’s got a chip on her shoulder the size of Texas on behalf of her mother.  So guess who’s not rejoicing anymore?  That’s right, the Protestants.  They take the place of the Catholics, who had been underground, and go underground themselves.  Maybe they just swap houses.  Who knows.  Anyway, now the Catholics are doing the rejoicing.

Then, a few years later, Mary dies.  Oops.  Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn’s daughter (the second wife, for whom Henry excommunicated himself in the first place), comes up to the plate.  Pretty much by this point she’s just pissed off at religion in general.  She makes a big deal about not putting windows into men’s souls, yada yada.  But guess who rises in her court?  The Protestants.  Guess who ain’t so popular?  The Catholics.  Within a lifetime, a Catholic could have gone from being the only religion around (universal – catholic with a small c), to kinda hiding, to seriously hiding, to coming back out, and then having to go back into hiding.

So, that leads us to Byrd.

Byrd was a Catholic.  The Ave Verum Corpus is a Eucharistic hymn that translates to “Hail true Body” and starting in the middle ages was sung when the host was elevated (representing the true body of Christ descending to the bread).

A big debate in Renaissance England was whether the Communion bread actually seriously turned into Jesus, or whether it was representative.  People died because they believed that the bread really was Jesus.  Or wasn’t.  Lots of people.  Burned.  Fire creeping up straw piles to where they were bound to a pole, and biting at their feet while smoke swirled around them, slowly scorching their skin until eventually the pain got to be too much to bear and they would mercifully pass out (unless they were lucky enough to have a friend who could provide them a little bit of gunpowder, so they would go faster).

Because they believed the bread turned into Jesus.  Or didn’t.

So to write a piece about the True Body of Christ during this clusterf*ck of a period was taking a risk.  And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to hear the longing, the yearning, the prayer for humanity to chill out about what people believe one way or the other.

Take a listen: (This isn’t Stile Antico – I think it’s the Tallis Scholars)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4rWsH1hkQ8]

Hear it?  This is more than a Eucharistic prayer.  This is more than the words – O sweet Jesus, O pious Jesus, O Jesus son of Mary, have mercy on me.  This is a prayer for Jesus to have mercy on all of us, for what we do to each other in His name.  It’s just as relevant now as it was then.  It’s the most longing musical prayer to God that I’ve ever heard, and even now, after listening to it for 20 years, it still speaks to me.

Now, back to Stile Antico.  They’re awesome.  See their NPR Tiny Desk Concert below, which is also Byrd, but much more happy music.

If you’re into this stuff, you can’t go wrong with their albums.


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kmhba4QoH3s]