Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Jerusalem Motets of William Byrd

The ancient corpus of Matins responsories that accompanies the readings from the book of Tobias this week includes one that is actually not Biblical at all, although the verse with which it is sung comes from the book of Judith. (It is repeated on some of the weekdays, including today.)

R. Tribulationes civitatum audivimus quas passae sunt, et defecimus; timor et hebetudo mentis cecidit super nos et super liberos nostros: ipsi montes nolunt recipere fugam nostram; * Domine, miserere. V. Peccavimus cum patribus nostris, injuste egimus, iniquitatem fecimus. Domine, miserere.

R. We have heard of the tribulations of the cities which they have suffered, and we have grown faint; fear and dullness of mind have fallen upon us and upon our children; the very mountains will not receive our flight; o Lord, have mercy. V. We have sinned with our fathers we have done unjustly, we have commited iniquity; o Lord, have mercy.

Folio 98v of the Antiphonary of Compiègne, also known as the antiphonary of Charles the Bald, 860-77 AD, with the texts of three antiphons from the book of Job, six responsories and three antiphons from the book of the Tobias, and the first two from the book of Judith, the second of which is Tribulationes civitatumall of these are used in the month of September. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 17436) – The original corpus for Tobias included only these six responsories, which cover the first two nocturns of Sunday Matins; responsories for the third nocturn, including Tribulationes civitatum, were usually supplied from those assigned to other books.
This was beautifully set as a motet by the composer William Byrd, but with modifications to the text, which is no longer structured as a responsory. The words “Domine, ad te sunt oculi nostri, ne pereamus” are inserted from one of the responsories of the following month which accompany the books of the Maccabees, and the last part is completely changed, also borrowed in part from one of the Maccabee responsories.

Tribulationes civitatum audivimus quas passae sunt, et defecimus; Domine, ad te sunt oculi nostri, ne pereamus; timor et hebetudo mentis cecidit super nos et super liberos nostros: ipsi montes nolunt recipere fugam nostram; Domine, miserere. Nos enim pro peccatis nostris haec patimur; aperi oculos tuos, Domine, et vide afflictionem nostram. (We have heard of the tribulations of the cities which they have suffered, and we have grown faint; o Lord, to Thee do we look, lest we perish; fear and dullness of mind have fallen upon us and upon our children; the very mountains will not receive our flight; o Lord, have mercy; for we suffer these things for our sins, open Thy eyes, o Lord, and see our affliction.)


This is one of three works known collectively as ‘the Jerusalem motets’, written by the Catholic Byrd in response to the intensification of anti-Catholic persecution in England under Queen Elizabeth I. The “city” in each case is the Catholic Church, and the pleas to the Lord for mercy are made collectively, in the plural, which it to say, on behalf of all the persecuted. The second motet is purely Biblical, taken from Isaiah 64, 9-10.

Ne irascaris, Domine, satis, et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae; ecce, respice, populus tuus omnes nos. Civitas Sancti tui facta est deserta, Sion deserta facta est, Jerusalem desolata est.  Be not very angry, O Lord, and remember no longer our iniquity: behold, see, we are all thy people. The city of thy sanctuary is become a desert, Sion is made a desert, Jerusalem is desolate.

The third, Vide, Domine, has only a few words taken directly from a liturgical text, “veni, Domine, et noli tardare”, from one of the responsories of Advent.
Vide, Domine, afflictionem nostram, et in tempore maligno ne derelinquas nos. Plusquam Hierusalem facta est deserta civitas electa; gaudium cordis nostri conversum est in luctum, et jocunditas nostra in amaritudinem conversa est; sed veni, Domine, et noli tardare, et revoca dispersos in civitatem tuam. Da nobis, Domine, pacem tuam diu desideratam, pax sanctissima, et miserere populi tui gementis et flentis, Domine. Deus noster. – See our affliction, o Lord, and do not forsake us in the evil time. More than Jerusalem, the chosen city hath become desert; the joy of our heart is turned to mourning, and our delight to bitterness; but come, o Lord, and tarry not, and recall the scattered ones into thy city. Grant us, O Lord, thy peace, long desired, (o most holy peace), and have mercy on thy mourning, weeping people, o Lord our God.

Byrd’s collaborator Thomas Tallis was a generation older; having grown up in the Catholic Church before the many woes inflicted upon it by the impiety and avarice of the English monarchs, he remained a Catholic all his life. From the liturgical texts of the same period, he drew the words of one of the most famous motets of all time, very much on the same theme, the Spem in alium for forty voices. In the Office, it is sung as a responsory with the book of Esther in the last week of September, but it is another ecclesiastical composition, not an exact citation of any Biblical text.
Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te, Deus Israel, qui irasceris et propitius eris, et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis. Domine Deus, creator caeli et terrae, respice humilitatem nostram. – I have never had hope in any other but in Thee, o God of Israel, who grow wroth, and art merciful, and forgivest all the sins of men in (their) tribulation. O Lord God, creator of heaven and earth, look upon our lowliness.

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