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Saturday morning quotes 7.6: Susanna

June 30, 2018


“In these words, as I have learned by trial, there is such a concealed and hidden power that to one thinking upon things divine and diligently and earnestly pondering them, all the fittest numbers occur as if of themselves and freely offer themselves to the mind which is not indolent or inert.”

– William Byrd, Gradualia (1605)

We return with a brief post and to share a new track of a song by William Byrd (c.1540 – 1623) that will appear on a forthcoming release of English songs, hopefully by the close of this year when this one-handed typist is once again a two-handed lutenist.  While many Americans celebrate another holiday in the coming week, today’s post marks another less fraught anniversary, that of the passage of 395 years since William Byrd’s death on July 4, 1623.

Although Byrd left behind no music specifically for the lute, we have arranged and recorded a few pieces that are particularly in sympathy with our unique style, including the well-known “Ave verum Corpus,” “O magnum misterium,” and the tuneful “My mind to me a kingdom is,” which was recorded a cappella.  We have a longstanding appreciation for Byrd’s music and even recorded his undated Mass for four voices just last week with our vocal quartet (watch this space for the release date).

Today’s featured Byrd song is “Susanna faire some time assaulted was” found in the 1588 publication, Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs of Sadnes and Pietie, a collection of thirty-five songs for five voices. “Susanna faire” is Byrd’s adaptation of the story of Susanna and the Elders from the Book of Daniel. The song is better known as the chanson spirituelle “Susanne un jour” by Orlande de Lassus, but Byrd’s version is uniquely his own.  The song was originally conceived for solo voice with accompaniment by four viols: In our version the four viol parts are arranged to be played on one bass lute.

For more background on the song, and an intriguing correlation with Elizabethan politics, we quote from the editor of volume 12 of the Byrd Edition, Jeremy L. Smith, from his article, “William Byrd’s Fall From Grace and his First Solo Publication of 1588: A Shostakovian “Response to Just Criticism”?”, Music & Politics, Volume I, Issue 1, Winter 2007.

“Those among English Catholics who supported Mary [Queen of Scots] herself would also surely have noted how well her life might be compared to that of the biblical character Susanna. In England Mary had been accused of adultery and complicity in a murder. Although an elaborate trial that involved the famous Casket Letters was never quite to materialize, Mary was essentially found guilty of those crimes. And in the end she was tried and convicted of plotting to kill Elizabeth. In both cases, her supporters were adamant in their view that she was wrongly accused. To defend her, several of her staunchest supporters described her situation as akin to Susanna’s, whose trumped-up charges of adultery Daniel was able to disprove after collecting separate, conflicting testimonies from the two elders who had together attempted to rape an innocent married woman.  Thanks to Daniel the elders themselves were convicted and stoned to death. Although Mary was never to enjoy the kind of vindication that Susanna would, her supporters believed that this was her rightful due. Eventually she would die a Catholic heroine, and martyr.”

“To cast the Catholic Queen as the biblical Susanna was to propagandize for the Marian cause, one with which Byrd could easily be associated. Yet there were plenty of other reasons why Byrd might have composed a work on the Susanna story. In 1548 a relatively obscure composer, Didier Lupi Second, published a setting of Guillaume Gueroult’s chanson spirituelle “Susanne un jour,” for a decidedly Protestant musical audience. The event would seem rather remote from anything having to do with Byrd. But it would be no exaggeration to suggest that the “Susanna” tradition Lupi started would eventually become the most widespread of any in the entire 16th century. By the time Byrd published his consort song on a related text, there were some three- or four-dozen examples from among which he might have chosen a model, and these ranged from lute arrangements to Mass and Magnificat parodies associated with composers working along a stretch from Portugal to Munich and many areas beyond and in between.”

“Musicological problems abound. On the one hand, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Byrd would have been quite willing to join a tradition like this, and even simply for the sake of the purely musical opportunities it might afford him. Byrd was well known to specialize in the “friendly emulation” of his fellow composers’ work. On the other hand, if Mary was the inspiration for a Byrd Susanna, perhaps she may have been the inspiration for others in the series as well. There would be plenty of works to sort through to check for this possibility. Kenneth Levy has noted that Protestants would naturally have been attracted to the text. But he also showed that many Catholic composers set it as well and to explain this he intriguingly surmised that they “made a special point of pillaging the Huguenots’ musical arsenal by appropriating Susanne as a symbol of their own.” Clearly a proper study of this “Susanna question” would require considerably more space than this study can bear. For the sake of the present argument, however, perhaps it need only be noted that Byrd could well have had more than one reason to compose and publish such a work. It is also likely that the English men and women who would encounter this piece in Byrd’s Psalmes were probably more familiar with the situation regarding Mary than with the musical tradition.”

Our recording of William Byrd’s “Susanna faire some time assaulted was” may be heard and downloaded here.

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