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Reformations: Beliefs that changed a continent

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Concert Programme

Josquin des Prez - Miserere: Prima pars

Marbrianus de Orto - Ave maria
Henricus Isaac - Salve sancta parens a6

Josquin des Prez - Miserere: Secunda pars

Martin Luther & Johann Walter - Ein feste burg
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck - Estans assis aux rives aquatique
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina - Tu es Petrus

Josquin des Prez - Miserere: Tertia pars

--- INTERVAL ---

William Byrd - Infelix ego: Prima pars

Water Lambe - Nesciens mater
Thomas Tallis - Sancte Deus

William Byrd - Infelix ego: Secunda pars

Thomas Tallis - Hear the voice and prayer
Thomas Tallis - Verily, verily

Thomas Tallis - Missa Puer natus est nobis: Agnus Dei
William Byrd - Mass for Four Voices: Kyrie

William Byrd - Infelix ego: Tertia pars

Programme note

The religious and political turmoil that took place throughout the 16th century, known now as ‘The Reformation’, is a topic so well impressed upon our historical understanding that it has given rise to many concert programmes before this one - especially of choral music. We would like to revisit these turbulent times with a new and specific focus. Exploring these well-known historical narratives by looking at the stories of individual people and how their personal reactions to the conflicts and controversies defined them and affected others will allow us to shed more light on this wonderful music and its dangerous context.

It is important to remember that ‘The Reformation’ was in fact a series of different events and conflicts: It was not one reformation, but many ‘reformations’, bringing about violent changes in the Catholic and new Protestant churches from within and without. While Martin’s Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg is traditionally seen as the start of the Protestant Reformation, Luther himself was informed by the thinking of a prominent reformer whose influence stretched across the entire continent and century: the Florentine Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola.

Savonarola was born in the early 1450s and initially trained to be a doctor. After a series of intense religious experiences, often obsessed with the apocalyptic, he decided to become ‘a knight of Christ’ and embarked on a career of radical preaching, prophesying, and demanding reform of both the state and church. In particular, he railed against the very excesses and perceived corruption among the clergy that Martin Luther would later also oppose. He, like Luther after him, also held that holy scripture alone was his guide to salvation. Because of this, and many other things, he fell foul of the authorities in both Florence and Rome and after a botched trial by fire in which he lost the support of many of his followers, he and two companions were arrested. Under torture, Savonarola confessed that his prophesies, visions, and teachings were made up and false, only to recant his confession, and then confess again. After this horror, imprisoned in his cell and aware that he had been condemned to death, he composed a mediation on the great Lenten psalm ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ in which he bitterly poured out his guilt and shame at having lacked the strength to withstand the torture, looking only to God for mercy. He was executed soon thereafter, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in the main square in Florence with his two followers, and their ashes were scattered in the Arno.

Josquin des Prez was a direct contemporary of Savonarola and around the time of Savonarola’s death, was employed by the French royal court, the Sforza family of Milanese aristocrats, and the Este family in Ferrara. Josquin would have been aware of Savonarola’s works, including his famous meditation on Psalm 51. While Josquin’s Miserere mei, one of the two major works that structure tonight’s concert, is a setting of the biblical Psalm text and not Savonarola’s meditation, Josquin employs the remarkable technique of repeating the ‘Miserere mei, Deus’ refrain at the end of each verse, highlighting it musically, in precisely the same way Savonarola did textually in his meditation. Josquin wrote the piece only a few years after Savonarola’s death and given the fame of the meditation, this homage would have been obvious to any contemporary listener familiar with the Savonarola story.

Around nine decades later, another brilliant artist toiling under religious persecution - William Byrd, famously a recusant Catholic in Elizabethan England - would look to Savonarola’s Psalm 51 meditation and find in it a connection with his own life and inspiration for his own struggles. Unlike Josquin, Byrd set Savonarola’s actual text itself, likely knowing full well the politically charged and incendiary nature of what it represented. This work, Byrd’s Infelix ego, expresses powerfully the urgency and desperation with which Savonarola cries out to God, and in Byrd’s setting the triumph of God’s mercy is hard won, but in the end conquers all.

These two works (Josquin’s Miserere and Byrd’s Infelix ego) give our concert programme structure, as their identical three-part structures are split up in the same way across the first and second halves respectively.

The remainder of the first half is dedicated to the continental Reformations with which we are familiar. Representing the importance of the printing press in the philosophical arguments that were raging, Marbrianus de Orto’s Ave Maria is the first piece in the first book of printed music ever published, in 1501. It symbolises, therefore, the coming changes brought about by this new technology. Textually, however, it is a devotional piece to the Virgin Mary and as such belongs squarely in pre-Reformation thinking. Henricus Isaac’s Salve sancta parens again sets a Marian devotional text in a liturgical style, and is an example of one of hundreds of short pieces Isaac wrote as ‘functional’ music within the established Catholic liturgies of his time, before Luther’s disruptions.

The second section of the first half is devoted to Luther’s Reformation and its reaction. Luther was famously musical, but his compositions were the hymn tunes themselves, many of which we (and hundreds of other musicians throughout history - notably JS Bach) know well. Johann Walter was a friend and colleague of Luther’s and published many of his tunes harmonised with four-part imitative counterpoint, in the 1530s. Ein fest burg, appearing on tonight’s programme, is one such piece. Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, again writing decades later than Luther and Walter, was heavily influenced by the Calvinist tradition in Amsterdam, and as various French translations of the book of Psalms began to circulate, he set many of these texts to music, including tonight’s Estans assis aux rives aquatique. That this Psalm is the famous hymn of the oppressed (in English, ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept’) is a fitting complement to this evening’s theme of religious conflict.

But of course, in response to criticism from Luther, Calvin, and others, and in fear for its survival, the Catholic church fought back! The famous Council of Trent was convened as a reaction to the reform movements and it kicked off more than a hundred years of attempts to impress upon believers the magnificence and divine power of the Church in Rome, known as The Counter-Reformation. Palestrina’s association with the Council of Trent is now more known to us in myth than fact, but his Tu es Petrus is just about as confidently Catholic a piece of music as it is possible to find! Saint Peter himself, the first pope of Rome, is of course buried under the famous Basilica in the Vatican, the very beating heart of Roman power and legitimacy, and the text Palestrina sets are the words of Christ himself as he tells Peter that he will be the foundation stone upon which his Church will be built - the Roman Catholic Church! Powerful stuff.

The second half of tonight’s programme examines the English Reformations, themselves no less complex than the turmoil happening on the continent. Byrd’s place in this narrative is well known to modern audiences. His role as the oppressed Catholic, constantly wagging the finger of condemnation at his fellow Englishmen and the state itself while bemoaning the plight of the Catholic church in England in exquisitely beautiful and painful music is a theme many in our audience will recognise. What some may not know is that his teacher and close business partner, Thomas Tallis, a generation older than Byrd, was much more flexible in his religious convictions - at least when it came to writing music. As I mentioned above, Byrd’s Infelix ego provides the scaffold for the second half as an analog to Josquin’s Miserere in the first and here again we also begin with pre-Reformation English music, the most famous collection of which is The Eton Choirbook, compiled in around 1502. Walter Lambe’s Marian setting Nesciens mater is emblematic of this collection musically and textually. Tallis actually began to compose before Henry VIII split from Rome, and tonight’s Sancte Deus is an example of one of his early pre-Reformation works. Tallis then fulfilled the needs of successive monarchs, including Edward VI’s strict requirements for clarity in music expressed in Archbishop Cranmer’s famous edict ‘to every syllable, [one] note’. Hear the voice and Prayer, and Verily, verily I say unto you are striking examples of this simplicity, especially compared with the florid, complex counterpoint on display elsewhere in this programme.

Of course, with the return of the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor, it was all change again! Tallis took up the challenge and produced his amazing Missa Puer natus est nobis, from which we are singing the last Agnus Dei movement, and likely first performed at Christmas in 1554 when Mary was believed to be expecting a child. Catholicism in England was once again on the rise, and the music expresses this lavish optimism. This piece could not contrast more with the austerity and precision of Tallis' earlier English anthems.

To close the concert, we return again to Byrd and finish with another setting of the catholic mass, the Kyrie movement from his Mass for Four Voices. Published as an act of defiance and without a title page lest it be discovered by the official censors, this famous work echoes the simplicity of Tallis’ English anthems, but with the pathos and vulnerability drawn from the music’s role in worship done secretly and under the threat of legal prosecution. Finally, the third section of Byrd’s Infelix ego is a powerful reminder that, even in the very heat of the most bitterly fought battle over who is right or who is wrong, we are all, ultimately, at the mercy of the divine.

Greg Skidmore, November 2022

Texts and translations

Miserere mei, Deus: Prima pars

Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam:
et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.
Miserere mei Deus;
amplius lava me ab inquitate mea,
et a peccato meo munda me.
Miserere mei Deus, quoniam iniquatatem meam ego cognosco,
et peccatum meum contra me est semper.
Miserere mei Deus; tibi soli peccavi
et malum coram te feci,
ut iustificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum iudicaris.
Miserere mei Deus.
Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum
et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.
Miserere mei Deus.
Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti;
incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.
Miserere mei Deus.
Asperges me, Domine, hysopo, et mundabor;
lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor.
Miserere mei Deus.

Have mercy upon me, God: Part One

Have mercy on me, God, according to your great mercifulness,
And in accordance with the extent of your compassion, expunge my wickedness.
Have mercy on me, God:
Wash me thoroughly clean of my wickedness
And cleanse me from my sin.
Have mercy on me, God, since I know my wickedness
And my sin against you is always in front of me.
Have mercy on me, God; I have sinned against you alone and done evil in your presence,
As you have rightly said in your words, and you will be fully justified when you pass judgment.
Have mercy on me, God;
For indeed I was conceived in wickedness
And my mother conceived me in sinfulness.
Have mercy on me, God.
For indeed you have taken pleasure in truth;
You have shown me unclear, hidden aspects of your wisdom.
Have mercy on me, God.
Sprinkle me, Lord, with hyssop, and I will be clean;
You will wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Have mercy on me, God.

Ave Maria

Ave Maria, gratia plena: Dominus tecum.

Hail, Mary, full of grace: The Lord is with you.

Salve Sancta Parens

Salve Sancta parens enixa puerpera Regem qui caelum terramque regit in saecula saeculorum.
Sentient omnes tuum adjuvamen quicumque concelebrant tuam commemorationem.

Hail, Holy Mother, woman who gave birth to the King who rules heaven and earth for ever and ever.
All will be aware of your aid who come together for your worship.

Miserere mei, Deus: Secunda pars

Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam et exultabunt ossa humiliata.
Miserere mei Deus; averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis et omnes iniquitates meas dele.
Miserere mei Deus.
Cor mundum crea in me, Deus, et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.
Miserere mei Deus; ne proicias me a facie tua
Et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.
Miserere mei Deus; redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui
Et spiritu principali confirma me.
Miserere mei Deus.
Docebo iniquos vias tuas, et impii ad te convertentur.
Miserere mei Deus; libera me de sanguinibus,
Deus salutis meae,
Et exultabit lingua mea iustitiam tuam.
Miserere mei Deus.

Have mercy upon me, God: Part Two

To me as I hear you, you will give joy and happiness, and my humbled bones will rejoice.
Have mercy on me, God; turn your gaze away from my sins and expunge all my evil deeds.
Have mercy on me, God.
Create a pure heart in me, God, and renew a righteous spirit in the depths of my being.
Have mercy on me, God; do not send me from your sight
Nor withdraw your holy spirit from me.
Have mercy on me, God;
give back to me the happiness of your protection
And strengthen me with your ruling spirit.
Have mercy on me, God.
I will teach the wicked your ways and the unholy will be turned to you.
Have mercy on me, God; free me from blood-guilt, God of my salvation,
And my tongue will rejoice in your justice.
Have mercy on me, God.

Ein feste Burg

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,
ein gute Wehr und Waffen.
Er hilft uns frei aus aller Not,
die uns jetzt hat betroffen.
Der alt böse Feind,
mit Ernst er’s jetzt meint
Gross Macht und viel List
sein grausam Rüstung ist.
Auf Erd ist nicht seinsgleichen.

Mit unsrer Macht ist nichts getan,
wir sind gar bald verloren.
Es streit’t für uns der rechte Mann,
den Gott hat selbst erkoren.
Fragst du wer der ist ?
Er heisst Jesus Christ,
der Herr Zebaoth,
und ist kein andrer Gott.
Das Feld muss er behalten.

Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär
Und wollt uns gar verschlingen,
so fürchten wir uns nicht so sehr,
es soll uns doch gelingen.
Der Fürst dieser Welt,
wie saur er sich stellt
tut er uns doch nicht.
Das macht, er ist gericht’t
Ein Wörtlein kann ihn fällen.

Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn
Und kein Dank dazu haben.
Er ist bei uns wohl auf dem Plan
Mit seinem Geist und Gaben.
Nehmen sie den Leib,
Gut, Ehr, Kind und Weib,
lass fahren dahin.
Sie haben’s kein Gewinn.
Das Reich muss uns doch bleiben.

A strong fortress is our God
A good defence and weapon.
He helps us freely out of all our distress,
which has now befallen us all.
The old evil foe,
gravely now intends.
Great might and much cunning
Is his dreadful armour.
On earth is not his equal.

With our own strength we can do nothing,
we would soon be forlorn.
The right man is fighting for us,
whom God himself has chosen.
You ask who he is
He is named Jesus Christ,
the Lord Sabaoth,
and is no other God.
The field he must retain.

And if the world was full of devils
and would want to utterly devour us,
we are not too afraid,
we shall yet succeed.
The prince of this world,
as sour as he makes himself
he does nothing to us yet.
That is because he is judged.
One small word can fell him.

The word they must leave standing
and have no thanks for it.
He is with us well in the plan
With his spirit and gifts.
Should they take the body,
Goods, honour, child and wife,
let them go from here.
They have no gain.
The kingdom must yet remain ours.#

Estans assis aux rives aquatiques

Estans assis aux rives aquatiques de Babylon plorions melancoliques, nous souvenans du païs de Sion.
Et au milieu de l’habitation où de regrets, tant de pleurs espandismes, aux saules verds nos harpes nous pendismes.

While seated on the watery river-banks of Babylon, we wept inconsolably as we remembered the land of Sion.
And in the midst of the dwelling-place where we poured out our longing and so many tears, we hung our harps on the green willows.

Tu es Petrus

Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram
aedificabo Ecclesiam meam;
Et portae inferi non prᴂvalebunt adversus eam.
Et tibi dabo claves regni cᴂlorum.

Quodcumque ligaveris super terram
erit ligatum et in calis:
et quodcumque solveris super terram
erit solutum et in calis.
Et tibi dabo claves regni calorum.

You are Peter, and upon this rock
I will build my church;
And the gates of hell will not prevail against her.
And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Whatever you bind on earth
will be bound also in the heavens:
and whatever you set free on earth
will be freed also in the heavens.
And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Miserere mei, Deus: Tertia Pars

Domine, labia mea aperies, et os mea adnuntiabit laudem tuam.
Miserere mei, Deus,
Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium dedissem
Utique holocaustis tibi non delectaberis.
Miserere mei, Deus.
Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus contritum et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.
Miserere mei, Deus.
Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion,
Ut aedificentur muri Hierusalem.
Miserere mei, Deus.
Tunc acceptabis sacrificium iustitiae oblationes et holocausta;
Tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.
Miserere mei, Deus.

Have mercy upon me, God: Part Three

Lord, you will open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise. Have mercy on me, God.
For if you had wished it, I would have offered a sacrifice,
though certainly you will not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
Have mercy on me, God.
A troubled soul making a penitential and humble sacrifice to God is not something you will despise.
Have mercy on me, God.
Look kindly, with your good will, on Sion
So that the walls of Jerusalem may be built.
Have mercy on me, God.
Then you will receive for your righteousness a sacrifice, prayers and burnt offerings;
Then the people will place calves on your altar.
Have mercy on me, God.

Infelix ego: Prima pars

Infelix ego, omnium auxilio destitutus,
Qui calum terramque offendi.
Quo ibo? Quo me vertam?
Ad quem confugiam?
Quis mei miserebitur?
Ad calum levare oculos non audeo,
Quia ei graviter peccavi.
In terra refugium non invenio,
Quia ei scandalum fui.

Wretched am I, lacking all sources of help,
I who have displeased heaven and earth.
Where shall I go? Where shall I turn?
To whom shall I flee?
Who will take pity on me?
I do not dare raise my eyes to heaven,
For I have sinned grievously against it.
I find no refuge on earth,
For I have been a cause of offence to it.

Nesciens mater

Nesciens mater virgo virum
Peperit sine dolore salvatorem saeculorum.
Ipsum, regem angelorum, sola virgo lactabat
Ubera de caelo plena.

Not knowing a man, the mother, a virgin,
Gave birth without pain to the saviour of the world.
The virgin all by herself suckled him, the king of angels, with a breast
filled from heaven.

Sancte Deus

Sancte Deus, sancte fortis, sancte et immortalis:
Miserere nobis.
Nunc, Christe, te petimus, miserere quaesumus.

Qui venisti redimere perditos,
Noli damnare redemptos.
Quia per crucem tuam redemisti mundum.

Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal,
have mercy on us.
Now, Christ, we turn to you and beg you to have mercy.

You who came to redeem the lost,
Do not condemn those you have redeemed.
For through your cross you redeemed the world.

Infelix ego: Secunda pars

Quid igitur faciam? Desperabo.
Misericors est Deus,
Pius est salvator meus.
Solus igitur Deus refugium meum:
ipse non despiciet opus suum,
non repellet imaginem suam.

Therefore, what shall I do? I will give up hope.
No – let this not happen.
God is merciful,
My saviour is holy.
God alone, therefore, is my refuge:
He will not scorn his own handiwork,
He will not reject his own likeness.

Hear the voice and prayer

Hear the voice and prayer of thy servants that they make before thee this day,
that thine eyes may be open toward this house night and day,
even toward this place, of which though hast said ‘My name shall be there.’
And when thou hear’st, have mercy on them.

Verily, verily I say unto you

Verily, verily I say unto you,
except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have not life in you.
Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood dwelleth in me, and I in him.

Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
Dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,
grant us peace.


Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

Infelix ego: Tertia pars

Ad te, igitur, piissime Deus,
Tristis ac mᴂrens venio
Quoniam tu solus spes mea,
Tu solus refugium meum.
Quid autem dicam tibi?
Cum oculos levare non audeo,
Verba doloris effundam,
Misericordiam tuam implorabo,
Et dicam; ‘Miserere mei, Deus,
Secundum magnam misericordiam tuam’.

Therefore, to you, most holy God
I come, sad and weeping
Since you alone are my hope
You alone my refuge.
But what shall I say to you?
Since I do not dare raise my eyes
I will pour out words of grief,
I will beg for your pity
And I will say; ‘Have mercy on me, God,
According to your great mercifulness.’