About 400 years ago, a composer paid homage to another Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth II died on Thursday at 96. Her 70 year reign was the longest in British history. Honor her life and legacy with music inspired by Queen Elizabeth I.
As the world remembers the life and legacy of Queen Elizabeth II, it is meaningful to consider a musical tribute to another Elizabeth — Queen Elizabeth I — composed around four centuries ago. The composer, William Byrd (1540-1623), was a committed convert to Catholicism working in an Anglican kingdom, but he also composed a few English language choral anthems for Anglican use. Among the most famous of these is the anthem for six voices, O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth. The full text reads:
O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen to rejoice in thy strength:
Give her her heart’s desire, and deny not the request of her lips;
But prevent her with thine everlasting blessing,
And give her a long life, even for ever and ever. Amen
The fact that such work was expected of composers employed by the court doesn’t detract from the beauty of the music or the sentiment. William Byrd was one of the most important composers of the English Renaissance. If you listen carefully, you’ll notice some subtle clashing dissonances. One aspect of Byrd’s style that might seem strange today is his tendency to include two “versions” of the same note (for example, the note D and the note D-flat). These two versions clash sharply, but Byrd prevents the harshness from overwhelming the texture by burying the offending notes in the middle of the choral texture. Also interesting here is the archaic use of “prevent” in the poem’s third line. In this context, “prevent” is not synonymous with “to stop” or “to keep from.” Rather, here the choir is imploring the Lord to “go ahead of” the Queen in order to head off any looming or potential threats.
One could speculate that Byrd had something of an ulterior motive, since Elizabeth I, though Protestant, tended to be more moderate and tolerant of folks that went to a different church than was typical of the era. No wonder then, that Byrd wished her a long life, “even for ever and ever.” Regardless, the anthem — an example of the best choral writing of the era— is a moving to tribute to an extraordinary, historical figure, and makes especially appropriate listening this week.