William Byrd (±1539-1623): Memento Homo

English Catholics in Byrd’s time were under siege from the officers and judiciary of a hostile protestant state. Despite this they celebrated the fiests of the Church as best they could. Ash Wednesday was an important day, it marked the start of Lent – the time of prayer and repentance before the explosion of joy at Easter. Byrd was determined to provide music suitable to the reduced and dangerous circumstances in which the recusant community  (Catholics  who refused to attend services of the Church of England) found themselves. For the recusants it was no longer possible to celebrate the feasts of the Church as their parents and forebears had done with elaborate ceremonial and splendid music written for large forces they needed new music suitable for small gatherings of believers and appropriate in scale to a Church and congregation in danger of extinction. 

Byrd’s six part lenten motet Memento Homo (Remember man) scored for divided tenors and baritones certainly fits this need. Byrd published it in 1575 in Cantiones Sacrae taking the text used for the ‘imposition of ashes’  1 on Ash Wednesday in the Sarum rite setting it in a modern manner and deploying the sort of musical forces that a small gathering could be expected to provide. It’s a beautiful piece of music made all the more powerful by its brevity. It’s sung below by the Cardinall’s Musick conducted by Andrew Carwood. Enjoy :-)


Text: Memento Homo

Latin English
Memento homo, quod cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris.
cf. Ecclesiasticus 17:31, Job 34:15
Remember, O Man, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt return.
  1. ‘imposition of ashes’  is the ceremonial  placing of a mark of ashes on the believers’ foreheads as a token of penitence and mortality

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