"Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept: when we remembered Sion
"Super flumina Babylonis illic sedimus et flevimus, cum recordaremur Sion
Philippe de Monte was born in 1521 and died on July 4, 1603. A Fleming, he is probably best known amongst Anglophones as Byrd the younger's friend and mentor. After a peripatetic youth during which he served the Orsinis, the Medici, and Mary Tudor, he was appointed musical director to the imperial Habsburg courts of Vienna and Prague. He was best known for his madrigals, (he published four books of them), but it's his treatment of Psalm 137 that I want to deal with in this posting.
Psalm 137 is a dark dark text. As an exilic psalm it featured heavily in Catholic Lenten devotions and features in the Lenten liturgy to this day. The misery of having been dragged in defeat into exile to be found in the first verse, the humiliation of "And they that carried us away, said: Sing to us a hymn of the songs of Sion", the numb despair of "How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?" go far in explaining the savage hatred of the last three verses. The sense of exile, of being cut adrift in a hostile world found in the first six verses fitted into and accentuated the Catholic religious vision of the penitent faithful pleading to be taken once again into the Lord's grace. Together the exilic Psalms and the penitential Psalms (such as Psalm 130, De profundis) played a significant role in shaping Renaissance Catholic sensibility. This sense of exile, of alienation, was used by de Monte in his setting of Psalm 137 to express in secret code his concern and solidarity for his English friend William Byrd.
During his time in England (1554-1555) in the service of Mary Tudor De Monte became friends with William Byrd (1540-1623) and remained in contact with him by letter. During this period of English history a change of monarch meant a change in the established religion. Mary's reign was marked by persecution of Protestants her death and the ascension to the throne of Elizabeth I reversed this — now it was Catholics who could expect persecution. William Byrd was a "secret" Catholic and was at risk of imprisonment and even death if the authorities became "officially" aware of his Catholicism. Queen Elizabeth I, was aware of but tolerated his Catholicism so long as he was not open about it. In an age when religion was frequently a matter of life and death this was remarkably tolerant but did not stop Byrd from considerable private suffering.
In 1583 deeply concerned at the plight of Catholics in England De Monte sent his setting of Psalm 137 to Byrd. His purpose was solidaristic, he was using the Psalm with it's references to exile and alienation to acknowledge Byrd's sense of isolation — of being an exile in his own land.
De Monte's intent was solidaristic — he was acknowledging Byrd's sense of isolation and trying to comfort him. The lines "How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?" and "For there they that led us into captivity required of us the words of songs". are both thinly veiled references to Byrd's being a Catholic composer in a Protestant kingdom.The imagery of the Lord's people weeping and hanging up their harps in the willow groves of Babylon, as they remembered the happiness of their past lives was his attempt to express sympathy for Byrd's predicament. While his rearrangement of the order of the Psalm's verses sharpens his lament for the fate of English Catholics, especially his friend William Byrd. What could be worse for one of the Lord's musicians than a Babylonian captivity that included being "required of the words of songs" by his persecutors?
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