Byrd’s Magnificat

William Byrd (ca. 1540 – 1623) was an unabashed Catholic composer during the tumultuous time of the ‘Reformation’ – more properly, the revolt in England and across Europe against the Roman Catholic Church, to which the the great musician belonged. He was born in during the dying days of Henry VIII, and lived through the Tudor reign of his children – Edward VI, Mary Tudor, the long-lived Elizabeth, and then to James I. Somehow, like his contemporary genius Shakespeare, Byrd kept his Catholic faith, his head and his freedom – not least, since he was the greatest composer of his age, perhaps that England has ever produced.

Here, in honour of the Solemnity of the Assumption, is his Magnificat, from his ‘Great Service’ of 1549, for the Liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. This was in the early days of the Reformation (Henry had died in 1547), and England still mostly thought of herself as Catholic, but with an English liturgy, and without the Pope. That has not worked out too well, but the Anglican Ordinariate is a treasure from that era, and so is the music.

So here it be, the Virgin Mary’s praise of her Lord, in beautiful English, and counterpointed harmony: