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Desolation Row, England, 1589: Exploring William Byrd’s “Ne irascaris, Domine”

By Schubert Club

Richard Evidon is a long-time friend and contributor at Schubert Club. The Minneapolis-born musicologist/writer/translator/editor was on the London editorial staff of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians in the 1970s and for nearly two decades was English Editor and Editorial Manager of Deutsche Grammophon in Hamburg. He has written music criticism for The Times (London), Musical Times, American Record Guide, St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune as well as program notes for the Minnesota Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival and BBC Proms. He currently writes for several classical record companies and translates for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.


Whenever I listen to Renaissance choral repertoire – which is often – I’m certain that this is a unique pinnacle of Western music. I feel a particular attraction to two English composers of the period: Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and William Byrd (1540-1623), whose music I was privileged to learn from two outstanding scholars at Berkeley – and to sing there in the university’s chamber choir.  

Byrd, who was Tallis’s disciple, wrote in every genre – secular songs, keyboard pieces and chamber music, as well as sacred choral polyphony comparable to those of the other supreme Renaissance masters: Palestrina in Italy, Lassus in the Netherlands and Victoria in Spain.

Before we get to the musical selection, a little historical perspective on the significance of Byrd’s marginalized Catholic faith in Protestant England and its bearing on the text and subtext of Ne irascaris, Domine. In 1534 the pope had refused to grant Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. The king retaliated by cutting off England from Rome and demolishing the country’s Catholic institutions. When Henry and Catherine’s Catholic daughter Mary Tudor (remembered as “Bloody Mary”) became queen in 1553, she promptly restored the Roman faith and began persecuting Protestants. Five years later, the religious pendulum swung back again. Mary died and was succeeded by Henry and Anne’s Protestant daughter Elizabeth I, who reinstated the English Church and began making life miserable for the so-called recusant Catholics who remained secretly or openly loyal to the pope.

William Byrd was one of those recusants. What probably saved him from punishment, torture and execution was his status as a composer (!) as well as his shrewdly negotiated diplomatic relationships with high persons at court and Queen Elizabeth herself. You could say he played both sides against the middle, writing church music in English for the official Anglican service while covertly contributing music in Latin to the recusant cause: a series of motets that couldn’t be sung in public but were intended for private use in domestic Catholic settings.

The series was inaugurated in 1575 with a collection of Cantiones Sacrae (Sacred Songs) that Byrd co-authored with Tallis, who was probably also a recusant Catholic though, pragmatically, he kept his religious affiliation under wraps. Byrd followed this publication with two volumes of his own Cantiones Sacrae, in 1589 and 1591. Like many of these five-voice motets, Ne irascaris, Domine, composed in 1581 and included in the 1589 collection, has political implications. Its text from the Book of Isaiah – “Zion has become a wasteland, Jerusalem a desolation” – is a lament on the captive Israelites’ Babylonian exile, but the recusants, reading it for double meanings, would have understood the piece as Byrd’s personal expression of despair over the state of English Catholicism.

The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and Flight of the Israelites into Babylonian Captivity
(painting by James Tissot)
Like any great work of art, it’s also timeless. Hearing this 10-minute piece today and thinking about its message, I can’t help finding myself making connections with other, more recent periods of oppression, persecution and destruction – and with music that emerged out of the desolation, for example, spirituals in our own country. Not to mention the immediate situation in the Holy Land…

This is a double motet, composed of two symmetrical parts. Part I, the exiles’ plea for divine mercy, begins with the lower voices darkly intoning “Ne irascaris, Domine, satis” (“Be not angry, O Lord”), a calming phrase that moves into the upper voices and then is taken up by all five vocal parts. After another set of supplicating entries on the words “Et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae” (“Nor remember our iniquity forever”), the musical flow comes to a stop. What follows is a chordal appeal to the Lord – “Ecce, respice” (“Behold, look upon us”) – with a change in tone and texture that quietly yet dramatically conveys the captives’ sense of being abandoned. But the real center of gravity – in both parts of the motet – comes in a concluding, greatly extended contrapuntal phrase. Here it’s a long set of imitative entries on the text “Populus tuus omnes nos” (“We are all thy people”) that builds up in pitch, texture and intensity to depict the anguishing multitudes.

Part II comprises the exiles’ lamentation over the loss of the holy cities: “Civitas sancti tui”. An extended passage of imitative entries on the words “facta est deserta” (“deserted”) seems static, repeating aimlessly as though to evoke the empty landscape, before it finally comes to another full stop. As in the first part, Byrd interrupts the polyphonic flow with a change of texture and harmony, this time to set off two mournful utterances of the text “Sion deserta facta est” (“Zion has become a wasteland”). Then comes another breathtaking moment as the lament for Jerusalem (read Catholic England or any other devastated place in history that might occur to you) steals in, first in the top voice, then imitated successively by the others in descending order. This is the true culmination of the whole motet, drawn out with an astonishingly prolonged sequence of imitative entries on the final words “desolata est” to underscore the desolation of Jerusalem and its people.  

Ne irascaris, Domine
Ne irascaris, Domine, satis
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce, respice, populus tuus omnes nos.

Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est,          
Jerusalem desolata est.        


Be not angry, O Lord,
nor remember our iniquity forever.
Behold, look upon us, we are all thy people.

Thy holy cities are deserted.
Zion has become a wasteland,
Jerusalem a desolation.

Isaiah 64: 9-10

There are many worthy recordings of Ne irascaris, including a magnificent one by Stile Antico. None of them is more beautiful or moving than the live performance I’ve chosen as this week’s recommendation. It’s sung by VOCES8, another outstanding young London-based chamber choir. (Local note of interest: the tall tenor with the glasses is Blake Morgan, an American alumnus of Cantus in Minneapolis and Chanticleer in San Francisco.)


In case you’d like to follow along, here’s a link to the score of Ne irascaris, Domine: