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In a Strange Land

1 March, 2017

Not a comment on this wonderful country, but instead an introduction to our new programme, which receives its first outing tomorrow evening in Indianapolis!

In A Strange Land is the first of our two new programmes for 2017. Subtitled ‘Elizabethan Composers in Exile’, it explores the difficult and dangerous choices faced by Catholic composers in Elizabethan England. Some elected to seek European exile rather than facing persecution at home. Others paid lip service to the Protestant regime, whilst expressing their spiritual exile in their music.

‘Exiled for ever, let me mourn’: so runs the text of Flow my tears by that famously melancholic traveller John Dowland, with which we begin. Whilst Dowland was properly speaking more economic migrant than exile, seeking employment at various Continental courts, his contemporaries Peter Philips and Richard Dering both left England due to their Catholic faith. Philips, one of the greatest talents of his generation, travelled to Rome but later settled in Flanders. He was briefly arrested in The Hague, accused of involvement in a plot against Elizabeth, but survived and eventually became a priest. Dering, improbably enough, eventually returned to England and became Oliver Cromwell’s favourite composer, but in the 1610s was to be found in Brussels working at a Convent of English Nuns. Both composers assimilated much Italian style along the way; we perform Dering’s dramatic Factum est silentium alongside upbeat motets by both men in praise of the Virgin Mary.

The leading composer in England at this time was of course William Byrd who, despite being a member of Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal, clung fervently to his Catholic faith, writing music for clandestine services and associating with prominent Catholic figures at great personal risk. Many of his motets carry texts with significance for the Catholic cause; even the apparently innocuous Haec dies sets words sung by Catholic martyrs going to their deaths.

As a young boy, Byrd may have met the Flemish composer Philippe de Monte at the marriage of Queen Mary and Philip II of Spain. Thirty years later, de Monte sent Byrd his eight-voice motet Super flumina Babylonis – ‘By the waters of Babylon’; Byrd responded with an astonishing, canonic eight-voice motet of his own, taking up De Monte’s text: Quomodo cantabimus – ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’. English Catholics often compared themselves to the exiled Israelites, yearning for the return of God’s favour, and this choice of text is an unmistakable reference to Byrd’s plight.

Alongside this famous pair of works, we perform music by Byrd’s teacher Thomas Tallis, whose heartbreaking In ieiunio et fletu seems to mourn the demise of the Catholic forms of worship. And to close our programme, we return to the theme of the exiled Israelites in the superb five-part Lamentations by Robert White, another composer whose choice of texts and frequent use of Latin strongly suggests Catholic sympathies. This large-scale work, lasting some twenty minutes, is one of the greatest achievements of Elizabethan music, running the entire gamut of emotions from despair and anger to hope and consolation. It is hard not to believe that in this wonderful music, White is truly speaking from the heart.

We’re very excited about this new programme and can’t wait to unveil it tomorrow at St Paul’s, Indianapolis. We’ll then be singing it in Chicago on Friday evening, Victoria, BC, on Saturday evening, and the Chan Centre in Vancouver, BC, on Sunday afternoon, before we fly home. Further performances will include Brussels on 13 March, Dartington on 31st July and Swansea on 11 November.