Revd Dr Jonathan Arnold is Director of Communities and Partnerships in the Diocese of Canterbury and Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Anglican History and Theology at the University of Kent. He is a Lay Clerk at Canterbury Cathedral and sings with The Sixteen and other ensembles. He is author of Sacred Music in Secular Society (2014) and Music and Faith: Conversations in a Post-Secular Age (2019).
My introduction to Byrd’s music, as for many others, began in cathedral and chapel choirs. But it was during my university studies that I was privileged enough to sing on the Oxford Camerata’s recording of Byrd’s music in 1991, conducted by Jeremy Summerly. The centre piece of the programme, situated between the Masses for four and five voices is the magisterial Infelix ego. At the time I had not heard, let alone sung, this setting before, but it is a composition that has stayed with me ever since, both as a performer and a listener.
The words, penned by an incarcerated Savonarola in his Florentine cell 1498 and awaiting execution, are a meditation on Psalm 51 (50 in the Septuagint). Byrd’s glorious setting for six voices, is not only a supreme example of an enduring musical language of the high Renaissance, but one of his greatest legacies. The music beautifully reflects the words, alluding to a sense of exile, emphasises the rhetorical questioning of the text, with rising melodies that seem to plead for mercy, finally leading to a coda which suggests, perhaps, that redemption and pardon have been granted at last.
As the years have gone by, I have performed this piece with many ensembles, but my most profound experience of the music was when it was sung by The Tallis Scholars at the funeral of the wonderful, and much missed, soprano Tessa Bonner, who died tragically young on New Year’s Eve, 2008. I will never forget her partner Don Greig’s phone call to tell me of her passing and asking if I would officiate at the service. Tessa herself chose Infelix Ego for the service, which also included the sublime Media Vita by John Sheppard. The wonder of Byrd’s music, so beautifully sung, were a moving testament to Tessa’s life and a consolation to the mourners in the congregation, which included many fine musicians. I cannot hear the piece now without thinking of that occasion and of Tessa and it remains a piece that have I turned to at significant moments of life, and no doubt will do again.