There are few sounds that can facilitate religious thought as well as Renaissance era polyphony, and few choirs that can present such music with the tonal precision required to do justice to the ancient styles. Today, however, we present a choir that easily stands up to the works and performances of groups like VOCES8 and the Gesualdo Six: The Marian Consort.
For years The Marian Consort has been touring the UK, Europe, and the Americas performing rare and historical pieces from the sacred music tradition. Led by founder and director Rory McCleery, this group is composed of flexible singers who are adept at maintaining difficult contrapuntal voice parts.
Released on January 13, 2023, The Marian Consort’s rendition of William Byrd’s “Circumdederunt me,” creates an astounding sound. This polyphonic motet creates a swirling vortex of musical movement out of six separate melodies, which come together to create a seventh that is greater than the sum of its parts. The beauty of the music creates a rich atmosphere for religious reflection and prayer.
This style of music is the natural evolution of the Gregorian chant style. There are many elements of Renaissance polyphony that link the two genres, not least of all the a cappella nature of this artform. While polyphonic music eschews the Gregorian droning base line for one that moves with the same gusto as the other voice parts, it can almost feel like several different chants all sung at once.
The Latin lyrics translate to:
The pains of death surrounded me,
and the perils of hell found me.
I found tribulation and pain,
And I called upon the name of the Lord.
O Lord, deliver my soul.
While there is little information available about the circumstances of this hymn’s composition, Wikipedia’s list of William Byrd’s songs dates the piece to 1591. As William Byrd converted to Catholicism in the 1570s, this means “Circumdederunt me” is considered a Catholic hymn.