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Program Notes: War and Peace

Throughout the Renaissance, Europe was at war either with itself and its own members or with its neighbors. While cultivating rich traditions in music, mathematics, paintings, linguistics, and architecture, the continent of Europe has been wrought with violence, death, and destruction. Being on the forefront of so much expansion and imperialism lead to never-ending waves of conflict, both internal and external. There is no doubt the rulers of medieval and renaissance Europe were great patrons who elevated the arts and propagated humanist thinking, but at the same time were warlords whose ambitions caused massive destruction and loss of life. 


Internal conflicts were often due to breakdowns in diplomacy and negotiations. This was the case with the Battle of Agincourt, a part of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between the English and French. The Agincourt Carol chronicles this battle in which the vastly outnumbered English defeat of the heavily favored French. On the heals of the Hundred Years’ War, a battle for the throne of England, the War of the Roses (1455-1487), pitted two rival branches of the House of Plantagenet, the House of Lancaster and the House of York. As this war came to an end, due to the large number of casualties among the nobility, the feudal system in England began to weaken, ushering in England’s Renaissance. 


Other causes of infighting throughout Europe were religious disputes. The Protestant Reformation sparked many armed conflicts. England underwent decades of turmoil as the country violently shifted back and forth between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. Musicians living in England during this time adapted to continually shifting liturgical requirements. Coming to a sort of peak under the Tudor Dynasty, composers found themselves writing for the English Church under King Henry VIII and King Edward VI, and then again in Catholic idioms during the Catholic Restoration during the particularly violent reign of Queen Mary who had nearly 300 Protestants burned at the stake. 


On the continent, religious tensions continued with the Reformation sweeping over the continent in the 16th and 17th centuries. Culminating in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), Germanic territories lost more than 25% of its population while at war with the Roman Catholic House of Habsburg and its allies. This conflict with the Hapsburg Dynasty eventually involved a direct war between France and Spain (1635-1659). Armies moving across the continent started to scavenge entire areas bare, and episodes of disease and famine further devastated the population of Germany particularly, and the Low Countries as well as Italy to a lesser degree. 


One of the most significant conflicts between Europe and one of its neighbors involved the fall of Constantinople, in which the Ottomans defeated the Byzantines and captured Constantinople as their own. This event had far-reaching consequences to the West, one of which is seen in composers such as Dufay who wrote music lamenting the fall of the Eastern Church. The Duke of Burgundy, Phillip the Good, had considered taking arms against the Ottomans, however, the rising tensions between the Protestant Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church in his own Europe resulted in retaking Constantinople a distant dream. It’s entirely likely that L’Homme Arme was composed in response to this event. Religious conflicts in the 15th century also made their way to Spain, and by 1492, the Spanish captured Granada, the final Moorish stronghold.


All of this conflict moved composers to write music pleaing for mercy and intercession; sets of lamentations for their fallen cities; the first setting of a Requiem Mass. Our program opens with celebrations of war and victories with the Agincourt Carol, a call to arms with l’Homme Arme, romanticizing soldiers and knights and men in battle with Le Donne i Cavalier, the riches inherited in these conflicts with Beau le Cristal, and the grace of old age after wars have ended with His Golden Locks. 


Finally, beginning with Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, we focus on the importance of peace. Remembering those who gave their lives for their kingdoms and faith brings us to Tye’s somber In Pace. Its somber tone is enhanced by the liturgical plainchant steadily moving in the bass part under the more florid upper lines, and alternating between passages for the full choir and sections featuring this prayer for rest. The whole program closes with one more English composer, John Sheppard and his Libera Nos, Salva Nos, a prayer for peace and safety, which would have been said every morning and night at Trinity Cathedral in the 17th century. Like his contemporary, Tye, Sheppard alternates between plainchant and polyphony which seems to underscore the plea for peace amid the turmoil and chaos of competing monarchs and changing religious doctrine. 

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