As a footnote to the last post: I should have mentioned that one of the other ‘subterranean’ means which currently nurtures my inconstant faith is music. Recently, I’ve become attached to the work of two Catholic composers, for rather different reasons.

As part of my exploration of recusancy, mentioned in the last post, I’ve been listening again to the sacred music of William Byrd and (as with Southwell’s poetry) wondered why I hadn’t been captivated by it before. The recording I have, by the choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, is enchanting and has helped me through some difficult times already this year.

William Byrd

If the music weren’t enough, the story of Byrd’s devout Catholic faith, tenaciously maintained throughout his time at Elizabeth’s court, also fascinates me. There’s a geographical connection, too. Byrd was originally from Lincolnshire, but retired to Stondon Massey in Essex, my home county, apparently to be close to his patron, Lord Petre of Ingatestone. When I was at school, Ingatestone Hall was a popular destination for outings, and my father had some contact through business with the present-day Lord Petre.

The other composer whose music has become important to me recently is Francis Poulenc. I originally came across his motet ‘O magnum mysterium’ on a Christmas anthology CD and its haunting melody, oscillating between minor and major, cold and warmth, earthiness and mystery, remains my favourite seasonal piece. I’ve now bought the Hyperion collection of his sacred music, recorded by Westminster Cathedral Choir.

Francis Poulenc

As with Byrd, Poulenc’s life interests me almost as much as his music. There was an excellent article about him by Paul Bailey in the Tablet towards the end of last year, and I readily identified with the composer’s not always successful attempts to reconcile the delights of the world with the call of the divine.

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