Queen Elizabeth II made a notable comment in her first Christmas message after her coronation in 1953. Speaking of Elizabeth I, she said, “Frankly, I don’t feel at all like my great Tudor ancestor, who was blessed neither husband nor children, who reigned as a despot and was never able to leave his native shores ”.
Something of the same ambivalence must have been in William Byrd’s mind when he composed the music for a hymn asking God to let Elizabeth I “rejoice in your strength; she gives the desire of her heart and do not deny the request of her lips ”, with words taken from Psalm XXI.
Another motet of his from the 1880s reflects the anguish he and his fellow Catholics felt at having to practice their religion in hiding, in fear of arrest and execution. that motet, Ne irascarispublished in his book Sacred Songs of 1589, includes a line of lament: “The cities of your sanctuary are deserted, Zion is a desert and Jerusalem a desert”.
As Byrd biographer Kerry McCarthy comments, the phrase is “repeated over and over for several minutes, beyond what any contemporary singer or listener would probably have expected.”
Last week a choral concert by The Sixteen, titled “A Garland for the Queen: A Tribute to the Life and Reign of Elizabeth II”, gave a world premiere a new setting of the words that Byrd used in the previous anthem, starting , “O Lord, be your servant, Elizabeth.” You may have heard it broadcast live on Classic FM,
The composer of the new work is Cecilia McDowall, familiar to many on a commission from King’s College Cambridge, to set up a Christmas carol for her Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, widely listened to by radio listeners. Her choice was There is no rose.
His new work was sung in another evocative place: the chapel of San Pietro ad Vincula in the hidden heart of the Tower of London. The name of the chapel, San Pietro in Vincoli, could make one think of the many prisoners locked up in that fortress, but it was also the name of a liturgical feast celebrated for centuries on 1 August. He marked Herod of St. Peter’s release from captivity when an angel visited him and the chains fell from his hands.
The chapel of San Pietro ad Vincula even predated the Norman White Tower in London. It was also called St Peter in the Bailey (like the church next to Oxford Castle, which is now St Peter’s College chapel).
It was rebuilt in 1520 after a fire and, with its tall arches in a north aisle and perpendicular windows of plain glass, it gives a feeling of spaciousness, even though the nave can only accommodate eight people per row.
This was the burial place of Anne Boleyn and Thomas More, of John Fisher and Thomas Cromwell. The ambivalence persisted.
In his introductory remarks on the day of A Garland for the Queen, Cardinal Vincent Nichols noted that it was intended as a “thank you for the life of our late queen,” and mentioned an underrated virtue of Elizabeth II: “her willingness to forgive “.
The new work was commissioned by the Genesis Foundation, the brainchild of the money man and philanthropist John Studzinski, who identified Christianity, discipline and the example of the late queen as a model.
Byrd’s hymn continued to be used after Elizabeth I’s death, with words adapted to “O Lord, be thy servant, James.” I wonder if Cecilia McDowall’s composition can continue to be sung with the words “your servant, Charles”.