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In Latin motets, composer William Byrd comforted covert Catholics

William Byrd.
The Tallis Scholars will sing works by William Byrd on Dec. 12.CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL/file 2013/ArenaPAL;

On Dec. 12, the Boston Early Music Festival presents, for the 39th consecutive year, a concert by the Tallis Scholars. The program honors the group’s namesake by way of artistic patrimony, with a substantial dose of music by Thomas Tallis’s most famous student, the Elizabethan-era composer William Byrd (1540-1623). The focus is on Byrd’s Latin motets, which highlights his prominent and yet precarious career: Byrd was both a national treasure and a committed dissident.

Byrd was a Roman Catholic in (relatively) newly Protestant England. This was not, in itself, unusual: The majority of Elizabeth’s subjects were still Catholic. But they had to worship in private, and the threat of state reprisal was ever-present. Many of Byrd’s Latin motets — often composed for such in-home services — set texts that would have held special meaning for English Catholics hoping for a restoration of the faith.


Friday’s concert is scheduled to include two such works: “Vigilate,” Jesus’s warning to “keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will return,” its syncopated outbursts on the word “repente” (“suddenly”) either (or both) the anticipated short-circuit of the Protestant regime or the disrupting penalty for insufficient vigilance; and “Ne irascaris,” a grandly sober setting of Isaiah’s assessment that “Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem is desolate.” Such passages could be nominally unobjectionable to Protestant authorities — being, after all, scrupulously biblical — while still speaking directly to the Catholic hopeful.

Byrd was close to a group of Jesuit priests that infiltrated England, fomenting resistance; one of Byrd’s aristocratic patrons fled the country after being implicated in a plot to assassinate the queen. And yet Byrd remained largely untouched. Quite simply, his brilliance as a musician — and that brilliance’s usefulness to the state — outweighed his sedition. Elizabeth herself was a music lover, a skilled amateur performer, and recognized Byrd’s genius. He was a valued member of the Chapel Royal, where Elizabeth allowed Latin, high-Catholic style choral music, both as personal preference (she was averse to Puritan austerity) and political theater, reassuring visiting digni-taries of a tolerant regime.


Byrd, for his part, composed works in honor of Elizabeth, and, however powerful the symbolism in his Catholic-coded motets, avoided explicitly political themes. (Fines Byrd incurred for failing to attend Protestant services seem to have been, for the most part, royally forgiven.) It was a constant negotiation, but, ultimately, a successful one: Unlike many of his coreligionists, Byrd died in bed.

The Boston Early Music Festival presents the Tallis Scholars, Dec. 12 at 8 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church, Cambridge (tickets $19-$66; 617-661-1812; www.bemf.org).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.