William Byrd and the beckoning of beauty | Peter M.J. Stravinskas | The Dispatch at CWR
Style and class have been banished from most Catholic sanctuaries in our land – and we are all the poorer for it. The transient, the ephemeral, the cheap have replaced the beautiful, the uplifting, the inspiring.
Editor's note: The following is a homily preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on October 17, 2016, at the Votive Mass in honor of the English Martyrs, at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
As spiritual preparation for our lecture later this evening, we are celebrating a votive Mass in honor of the English martyrs. I am not going to preach about them, however, because Joanna Bogle knows infinitely more about them than I. Instead, I want to connect those martyrs and that era to other very important realities. Philosophers talk about “the transcendentals,” among which we count the good, the true and the beautiful. After all, it was none other than Aristotle who taught us that “the good, the true and the beautiful” coinhere, that is, you can’t have one without the other.
We Catholics are often very intent on leading others to “the true,” that is, to a submission of the intellect to Catholic doctrine and dogma – and that is a good and holy goal. However, resistance to “the true” is not uncommon. Indeed, when the intellect is darkened by habitual sin, “the true” not infrequently cannot be perceived as worthy of acceptance and is thus rejected out of hand as either incredible or absurd.
I suspect that people most often are brought to the truth by being exposed to “the good” or “the beautiful.” William Byrd, arguably the most accomplished liturgical musician in Reformation England along with Thomas Tallis, can provide us with flesh-and-blood evidence for this intuition of mine.
Byrd was born into a Protestant family and eventually became the court composer (with Tallis) under Queen Elizabeth. By the 1570s, Byrd was increasingly attracted to Catholicism. This was, humanly speaking, a strange attraction – a fatal attraction, one could say – given that the martyrdom of those loyal to “the old religion” was in full swing. Yet precisely under those circumstances did Byrd become a Catholic. I would maintain that he was drawn to the truth of Catholicism by the goodness, the holiness of the martyrs.
Byrd’s Catholic commitment found expression in his many motets with themes highlighting the persecution of the Chosen People in the Old Testament and their long-awaited deliverance. Who could not see (and hear) in these works an application to the plight of Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth? Interestingly, even though known to be a recusant (that is, one who refused to attend Anglican services), he continued to enjoy royal favor. Can we say that the Queen was so captivated by the beauty of his work that she was led to a good action in his regard – turning a blind eye to his practice of the Catholic Faith? Even more bizarre is the fact that the Episcopal Church in the United States honors Byrd with a feast in their liturgical calendar on November 21; just another sign of Anglican confusion, I suppose.
Byrd is also well known for his magnificent Mass compositions for three, four and five voices. You have heard some of them in this very church, and his Mass for Four Voices enhances our worship this evening. Most devotees of Byrd’s Masses, however, do not realize that they were not composed for and performed in grand cathedrals – those edifices had been purloined by the Protestants. No, those masterpieces were sung at “priest-hole” Masses – clandestine liturgies celebrated by priests under a death sentence and attended by laity whose very lives and fortunes were at stake for participating in “popish” worship.
Even in such dire straits, Byrd and the Catholic faithful wished to offer to the Triune God their very best and to be nourished themselves by those soaring melodies which brought them to contemplate heavenly realities.
Twenty years ago in this church on the feast of St. Gregory the Great, I bemoaned the reduction of language, art and music to the least common denominator.