Music for Sunday
Prelude: Kyrie, Gott Vater, J.S. Bach
Offertory: Miserere mei, Deus, William Byrd
Communion: Lord, For Thy Tender Mercy’s Sake, Richard Farrant
Postlude: Fugue in G minor, J. S. Bach
#506 The Word of God is Source and Seed
#330 Seed That in Earth is Dying
#759 My Faith Looks Up to Thee
Bach Vespers: The Lamentation of Jeremiah, Thomas Tallis
Tudor England features prominently in this week’s proceedings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, which will see performances of works by William Byrd (c. 1540-1623), Richard Farrant (c. 1525-1580), and Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585). All three were members of the Chapel Royal, the group of singers, musicians, and clergy that served (and continues to serve) as a private choir for the house of the British monarch. While little is known about the life of Farrant, Tallis and Byrd were both well known and regarded composers of their day, so much so that they received a joint monopoly to print and publish polyphonic music from Queen Elizabeth I in 1575. This produced their jointly published Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, a collection of 34 polyphonic pieces that contain some of the most well-known and beloved works by both composers.
Miserere mei, Deus, Byrd’s setting of Psalm 50:3, was published in 1591 in the second volume of Byrd’s Cantiones Sacrae, the first volume having been published in 1589. Tallis’ setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah was completed roughly 20 years earlier, in 1569. It is widely believed that Byrd and Tallis both remained Catholic throughout their lives, never entirely succumbing to the political pressures to accept the legitimacy of the then-young Church of England. As Catholics in Protestant England, they would have had to keep their faith private and secret, at risk of loss of life and property. This lends an added dimension to the weight of these dark and somber pieces.
Farrant’s Lord, For Thy Tender Mercy’s Sake is one of the most beloved anthems from this period, and features a primarily homophonic setting of a English text taken from Henry Bull’s Christian Prayers and Holy Meditations (1568). This treatment is reflective of the mood of the time, early in Elizabeth I’s reign, when it was deemed that music for the church should be simple enough that the words of the text could be clearly understood by the congregation, in contrast to the “Catholic” style of polyphonic composers such as Palestrina (and, often, Byrd and Tallis). The “Amen” of this piece, although brief, is one of the most stunning in the sacred music repertoire.