Throughout the medieval era in Europe, the Roman Catholic Church dominated. With little exception, people’s lives and religious beliefs were all dictated by the church. However, in the early 16th century, a movement known as the Reformation emerged, challenging the Catholic authorities and leading to the development of the Protestant faith (History.com Staff, 2009). During this time, music remained prominent in both secular and religious activities, and many composers used their music to promote and express their own religious beliefs. One such composer was William Byrd, who was born in 1542 in England. Perhaps the most heralded English composer of his time, Byrd wrote a wide variety of both sacred and secular songs—including a particular piece titled “Sing Joyfully.” This song, composed in 1590, was a sacred piece written for the church, and it reveals a lot about Byrd’s religious position—which was a very large issue throughout his life (Bonds et al. 2015, 74-76). During the reign of Henry VIII, England officially declared itself separate from the Roman Catholic Church (History.com Staff, 2009). As a result, Byrd, a devout Catholic, was constantly tormented by the Protestant government. Due to his talents as a Protestant composer, however, he was saved from much of the terrible persecution that other English Catholics faced. Throughout his life, he found a balance writing songs for both the Catholic and Protestant churches—and his pieces, particularly “Sing Joyfully,” reveal influences of both religions (Bonds et al. 2015, 76).
Though “Sing Joyfully” was written for the Protestant church, Byrd’s Catholic influences are also reflected in the piece. In fact, though technically separate, Protestant services were very related to—if not modeled after—Catholic liturgies (History.com Staff, 2009). So, even while writing a Protestant song, Byrd could still incorporate many aspects of Catholic sacred music. Byrd even declared his song an anthem, which was the English version of Catholic sacred songs (Bonds et al. 2015, 71). One obvious Catholic influence in “Sing Joyfully” is its deliberate focus on the text. In the mid-1500s, a group of Catholic authorities, led by the Pope, met in Italy in what became known as the Council of Trent. There, they discussed church practices and ideals in order to help codify what was acceptable for the church. One particular thing they debated was sacred music, and eventually they concluded that while polyphonic music shouldn’t be banned, the text must be the main focus of religious pieces (Bertoglio 2017). This is reflected in “Sing Joyfully,” as Byrd utilizes a technique called “imitative counterpoint,” where one voice starts off each phrase by singing alone, and then the rest of the voices join in and “imitate” what was just sung. This allows the words to be stated clearly before being embellished by polyphony. Furthermore, Byrd repeats each phrase several times before the next verse is sung, helping to emphasize the words (Bonds et al. 2015, 72). The song itself is very similar to a sacred madrigal, with the text dictating how the song is performed and arranged. Each separate verse is given its own unique musical thought, so that rather than blending together, the lines are all emphasized. Byrd further places focus on the words by making the song a capella, so as to avoid any musical distraction from instruments (Bonds et al. 2015, 71). Through all of these methods, the song’s emphasis is clearly placed on the lyrics—an aspect that was central in the Catholic church.
Since the main focus of “Sing Joyfully” is the lyrics, it would make sense for the words to give insight into Byrd’s religious beliefs—and they do. The text used in this song consists of the first four verses of Psalm 81—a chapter that’s taken directly from the Bible and used in both Catholic and Protestant religions (Bonds et al. 2015, 71). In this way, Byrd reveals his devotion to Christian faith, and while the lyrics are technically relevant to both forms of Christianity, this ambiguity works in Byrd’s favor. While to him, the song might symbolize Catholic worship, it can easily be—and has been—used in Anglican services. Either way, the piece is an obvious sacred song dedicated to worshipping and praising God (Bonds et al. 2015, 76).
Yet, the Protestant influences of the Reformation are also apparent in the piece. For one thing, the lyrics are written in English. While the Catholic church was strict on sacred songs being sung in the sacred language—Latin—Protestants promoted compositions written in vernacular languages (History.com Staff, 2009). In addition, despite Byrd’s emphasis on projecting the text, he still uses an elaborate six-part polyphony throughout the piece (Bonds et al. 2015, 72). Martin Luther, one of the main leaders of the Reformation, strongly believed in polyphony, embellishments, and the value of music in religious worship (Barber 2006). Thus, the rich musical texture and complexity of “Sing Joyfully” can easily be seen as a Protestant aspect. Byrd himself often advocated using music to serve God, which could perhaps be a Protestant influence stemming from his life in England. The text itself, in fact, invites the listener to “sing joyfully” and “sing loud,” and the rest of the lines are all about using instruments and music to praise the Lord (Bonds et al. 2015, 74). In this way, Protestant views are clearly demonstrated through Byrd’s music.
Through all of these musical aspects of “Sing Joyfully,” the song displays a mixture of both Roman Catholic and Protestant ideals—and in this way, it also reflects Byrd’s similarly mixed religious background. While perhaps the Protestant aspects were only faked by Byrd in order to avoid persecution, it’s very possible that his views were in fact influenced by living in an Anglican society during the time of the Reformation.