A beautiful conformity

Posted on: 17 March 2021, by :

Psalm 143, the seventh Penitential Psalm, is a lament seeking protection from oppression and persecution (the full text is here). In the opening verses, sung in this superb anthem by William Byrd, the penitent acknowledges God’s righteousness and begs not to be judged, knowing that the salvation granted to anyone is a gift, not something deserved through justification.

Byrd’s setting uses a method that is only rarely found: each part of the text is first sung by a soloist then repeated in harmonized form by the rest of the singers, while a consort of viols plays throughout. It conforms, just about, to what was deemed appropriate in c1600 for psalm-singing in the Reformed Church in England: each phrase of the text is delivered largely syllabically with easy-to-follow melody, and the ensemble singing is kept counterpoint-free. But at the same time Byrd pushed the envelope, notably with the astonishing beauty of the rich five-part harmonizations when the phrases are repeated by the ensemble of singers, and with the subtle decorations in the accompanying viol parts.

* *  This is the sixth post in a series for Lent and Holy Week, 2021 * *

1. Hear my prayer, O Lord, and consider my desire:
    hearken unto me for thy truth and righteousness’ sake.
2. And enter not into judgement with thy servant:
    for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.

William Byrd, Hear my prayer, O Lord, sung by Elisabeth Paul and other singers of the Magdalena Consort, with the viol consort Fretwork, in a recording session from January 2019.