This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

November 21 -- Feast of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and John Merbecke

Thomas Tallis
All three of these saints are venerated in the Episcopalian (USA) tradition, even though two are Catholics.  That must tell us something about their musical gifts, since they obviously would not be lauded so for straight theology.

Thomas Tallis will be familiar to those who watched Showtime's The Tudors, also shown on BBC2.  The producers of the series won cheers and jeers for depicting him as homosexual, or perhaps bisexual (I haven't finished the series) without any historical support for it.  Advocates for more gay characters on TV have been quick to point out that there's no evidence to say he wasn't gay either, except a childless marriage to a woman named Joan.  Tallis is most famous as a composer of religious music, though he also composed secular music and published the music of others. 
William Byrd

Queen Elizabeth I granted Tallis and another composer named William Byrd the monopoly on polyphonic music and the exclusive right to public music.  That's a pretty sweet deal, and must have been very lucrative.  The fact that they, both Roman Catholics, survived Henry's and Edward's reigns, and then managed to keep a low enough profile to be favored by Elizabeth is a testament to their tact as well as the value of their artistic contribution.

Merbeck's second opus
John Merbecke, however, must thank his luck more than his tact.  He was about thirty-three when he was sentenced to be burned at the stake for heresy.  The Bishop of Winchester pardoned him, but not the English language Biblical concordance he was working on.  That got burned (if not tied to a stake first).  The nice thing about intellectual property is that it can be recreated, as his concordance was a few years later.

Like Tallis and Byrd, Merbecke wrote church music.  The market for it expanded with the new Anglican rites, and Merbecke's contributions were significant.  Although none of these men is considered a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition, all three are included in the American Episcopalian calendar of saints. 

As I write about this feast, a friend called my attention to some observations made by Pope Benedict XVI in his latest book on the life of Christ.  In it, he noted that the Gospels tell us that the angels "said," not sang their good news.  "Hark, the Herald Angels Said?"  Fortunately, he covers this nicely.  "But Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present."

If the speech of angels is actually song, then Tallis, Byrd, and Merbecke must have been fluent in angelish, for no regular musician could have navigated the murderous Tudor years. 

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