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Infelix ego (Unhappy, I) – the introductory words of a lengthy meditation on Psalm 51 (the Miserere), by Girolamo Savonarola, a revolutionary friar in the Italian church of the 15th century.

Savonarola is most famous for the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, when he directed the citizens of the Republic of Florence to burn their sinful objects, an event that led to his excommunication. In the following year he was tortured and sentenced to death for heresy. Before execution he wrote the Infelix ego – an outcry of the sinner in search of God’s mercy.

The Tudor connection? Savonarola’s meditation was approved by Luther and adapted to music several times in the 16th century by Protestant reformers. But then … a Catholic adaptation by the Tudor composer, William Byrd (12:54) [oops – publisher thinks publication is bad – try the links below the window]:

[Performed by The Cardinall’s Musick – link to current youtube versions]

For the lyrics while you listen click this link (text in Latin & English, opens in new window).

The piece is for six voices and is considered the finest setting of Savonarola’s meditation. It was published in 1591, but the original version probably dates from about 1580. There’s a good scholarly treatment of Byrd’s work on the meditation at this link (p.287).

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Catholics in late Tudor England attempted to strike a balance between freedom and submission. Byrd’s music is perhaps the best means of understanding that attempt, so I recommend this play on BBC Radio 4: Suspicion for 10 Voices (60 mins).

The playwright Mark Lawson gives us an interrogation of Byrd by the Tudor spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, and his cryptographer, Thomas Phelippes. Lots of singing + puns on the name Byrd. It’s an interesting drama, with nice acting and word play.

Lawson’s idea must have come from this interview (iPlayer at 20:17) with Andrew Carwood, who directed Byrd’s Infelix ego linked at the top of this post.

Important point: Byrd was a follower of the Tridentine Use rather than the Sarum Rite – a reformer rather than a traditionalist – and although the play does have Byrd’s confessor as a foreign Jesuit priest, this issue is not fully addressed.

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