Mass for Five Voices


At St Dominic’s on Sunday we heard parts of William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, sung without humorous comment by 30 voices in choir. Byrd’s Masses for three, four, and five voices were composed between 1592 and 1595 when the aging Elizabeth (pictured above from 1595) was hounding Catholics all over England, killing them or turning them into state spies by threatening their families and using them to smell out other pockets of papistry.

In order to maintain the beauty of the Liturgy, even in a time of persecution, these Masses were set to easy-to-sing music and printed on small sheets of paper rather than bound in books to better allow them to be hidden. They were printed without commentary or instructions, no author or publishing house was noted. The Masses included the Kyrie which, prior to the reforms of Trent, was rarely sung in the Mass since the English (Sarum) liturgical tradition required a series of tropes to be woven into the verses, depending on the feast being observed. But the priests coming from the continent, trained in the English Colleges for the English Mission, were trained in the Tridentine Mass, with its one missal book, and it’s simplified liturgy. A priest could open a book, sing Mass, and get out of the house on to the next mission before the Priest Hunters and police were able to find him.

I was thinking about all of this as we heard the Mass for Five Voices on Sunday. I am aware that we are on the edge of something – I honestly don’t know what. Robert Hugh Benson felt it in 1907 when he wrote Lord of the World, a dystopia where communism and an occult pseudo-spirituality he called “Masonic” ruled the world and tried to destroy the Church. He saw this issue looming over the Church then. It’s still looming – although Fatima seems to indicate we’re closer to it now. It feels this way more and more because of the culture – but I don’t mean the secularism of the culture. Quite the opposite.

The English persecution at the time of Byrd was not a case of “Christian against Christian” for the Queen followed her father, Henry VIII, in using the state to keep Christians divided to protect her crown. These Christians who were Protestant and Catholic, yes, but it was the state that was driving the war, and keeping the people divided. This issue of perception is still very important: a state may have Christians in it or holding offices but a State cannot be Christian. The English State, in order to maintain its power (as it did in the north of Ireland), kept Catholics and Protestants at each other’s throats. Christians on all sides who fear to lose their mammon find it easy to support politicians who will help them keep their pockets full.

In our culture, the fringes of the Church – pulled to the political left and the political right – are increasingly following the lead of their political bosses in asking if other Christians (who don’t share their political ideologies) are even Christian at all. In our current era this began as left- and rightwing political ideologies crept into the Church in the 70s and 80s, although it runs through our history from the Aryan heresy. It is now very much in full force. The sitting president of the US on the right, the leaders of Europe on both sides of the aisle, and their unknowing minions inside media and religious communities are very skilled at using the political environment in the Church to tear the Churches apart. When American writers criticize the Pope for being too liberal whilst German bishops criticize him for being too conservative, you will see both sides of this play out. Any voice for traditional morality is derided as “nearly Hitler” and any voice of concern for the poor or the environment over money or power is called “communism”.

In such a world, eventually, the structures of spiritual support will no longer hold communities together and the state structures (which always seek to either consume or destroy all other structures) will step in to hold up their political friends and destroy their political enemies. In our modern era, we saw this in Soviet Russia as the Marxists decided to corrupt the Church from inside rather than trying to blow it all up. We see Putin continuing these same shenanigans today.

What will become of the Church? That is in God’s hands, but I fear we should begin to learn the Byrd Masses again. They can even be sung without a guitar or flute.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He feeds the homeless and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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