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Sacred choral music touches on deep religious, moral and political questions

Editor’s note: To listen along as you read, click the links in the text. These pieces were performed for The Economist by the choir of Jesus College, Cambridge.

IN 1605 Charles de Ligny, a Frenchman, was having a drink in the Fleur de Lys pub near the Tower of London when someone noticed what was in his bag. Soon after, government spies burst in, arrested him and threw him in Newgate prison. The seditious document was a copy of sacred choral music by William Byrd.

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How could this possibly be grounds for arrest? To most people today, sacred choral music of the 16th and 17th centuries is a calming oasis, or perhaps a devotional aid. But its history is a troubled, sometimes violent, one. Singing certain sorts of music could lead to public censure, or worse. The story of Byrd (1540-1623), an English Roman Catholic who contrived to remain part of the Protestant establishment he defied, illustrates the role such music played in political and theological struggles.

Though singing had a place in Christian worship long before, the earliest works of Europe’s sacred music of which records remain come from around the 10th century. This early choral music was largely “monophonic”, a tune often sung by a single person, without accompanying harmony or chords, such as plainchant.

This was not due to a lack of sophistication. “Polyphony”, music of interweaving tunes and harmonies, is part of humankind’s common heritage. Medieval people were not backward or stupid; monophonic music was a conscious choice made by those in positions of religious power. They thought it quelled the passions and encouraged devotion, Peter Pesic reports in his book “Polyphonic Minds”. Although plainchant has a rhythm, it is mostly imperceptible; by

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