Byrd on Jerusalem

Among the extrordinarily talented composers of Tudor England, none stands higher than William Byrd. He was something of an outsider, being a convinced Catholic in a country that was increasingly identifying itself by its adherence to Protestantism, and while he composed some beautiful pieces for Anglican liturgy his most powerful sacred music is, explicitly or implicity, composed with the old religion in mind. This is the case with his setting of ‘Ne irascaris Domine’, a short passage from Isaiah (64:9-10), according to which ‘The city of your holy one has been made a wilderness, Zion a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.’ The unaccompanied voices briefly but lovingly caress the word ‘Jerusalem’, passing it among themselves from one to another, before coming to the dreadful finality of ‘desolata est.’ It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see in the desolation of Jerusalem an allusion to the physical ruins of Catholicism in England and the fate of its holy places; at about the time Byrd was composing a poet was writing of ‘Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’, the choirs in question being the areas within churches where choirs sing. (Evidence for Shakespeare having been a Catholic is fascinating, although if he were I don’t think the way we look at his work would change very much.) And the symbolic status of Jerusalem suggests words of Blake, centuries later, that every so often are proposed as a potential English, as opposed to British, national anthem:

I will not cease from mental fight

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

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