In 16th-century England, under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, it was dangerous to be openly Catholic. Of course, Elizabeth I was more lenient towards Catholics than her predecessor, Queen Mary I, was towards those who were not — Mary I was well known for her ruthless persecution of Protestants — but Elizabeth would not stand for an outward challenge to the Church of England.
Jesse Kornbluth, from The Good Men Project, explains that Queen Elizabeth’s tolerance of Catholics was in part thanks to a deep love of the Catholic music traditions. She retained two of the most prolific English Renaissance composers, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, who both happened to be fervent Catholics. Byrd and Tallis were given a unprecedented honor from the Queen: a 21-year monopoly for polyphonic music and a patent to print and publish music, which was one of the first arrangements of that type in the country.
Due to this monopoly (and perhaps the reason for granting it), the works of these two Catholic composers were subjected to monitoring and scrutiny from the government on a level never before seen. Tallis and Byrd were free to write their music, but they could not openly practice their religion, and their music was required to be approved by the throne for performance in Church of England.
In 2014, John Elliot Gardner’s Monteverdi Choir released an album called, Vigilate!, which means to monitor, watch over, or control. This collection of English Renaissance music features the works of Tallis, Byrd, and several others who composed the “underground” Catholic music of the time. These composers, often described as “recusants,” secret Catholics, needed to find a way to present their distinctly Catholic sounds as music for the Protestant church.
To accomplish this, Catholic composers began composing some of the most beautiful polyphonic choral music ever composed. An excellent example of this is Tallis’ “Suscipe quaeso Domine,” which perfectly captures the style. Polyphonic means “many voices,” and in orchestration this means each vocal line is written with its own melody. When the lines are sung together they create a new melody.
William Byrd’s “Christe Qui Lux es et Dies” is an excellent example of Catholic reference in music. The piece opens with male voices singing a variation on plainchant. The sound is very distinctly a throwback to the Gregorian chant, which was as old to Renaissance composers as their music is to us. He interspersed more chant throughout the piece, which maintains a more classically chord-driven melody.
“Ecce, vicit leo,” by Peter Phillips, is a considerably more exuberant example. This video will give an idea of the complexity of the music, as well as showing what it looks like to have multiple melodic lines moving at once. By the end the fast pace of the melodic lines tests the skills of the chorus, as it takes precision to stay together.
One more example from Tallis. “If Ye Love Me” is an attempt capture musically the eternal love God has for his children. As such, there are very few moments when the beauty of this melody abates. Even when it does, the chorus drops into sustained chords that reverberate in warm waves of sound. The overtones this choir produces are particularly stunning.