The concert’s title, Singing in Secret, refers to a time when you couldn’t raise your voice to praise the lord with reckless abandon because the current regime’s way of expressing its unwillingness to tolerate your religious practices might involve disgrace, imprisonment and possibly death. Catholics in England under Elizabeth I were prohibited from celebrating Mass and had to do it secretly and (it goes without saying) quietly. They still wanted to have music with their devotions, so there was a need for a new kind of liturgical music – religious chamber music, as it were, modest in scale, for domestic performance.
The concert brought together a broad selection of Catholic liturgical music from both British and Spanish composers. It celebrated the work of two exceptionally successful survivors – Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. Tallis somehow contrived to prosper and have a very distinguished career at the Chapel Royal under the successive regimes of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I; his younger assistant Byrd, a much more overt Catholic, remained out of prison even though records show an unfortunate gentleman was chucked into Newgate in 1605 just for having a copy of Byrd’s “papistical” Gradualia in his pocket. Gradualia, like the Mass in Three Parts from which four items on the concert programme were taken, was music Byrd had written for Catholics who had to conduct masses in secret in their own houses. Other British contributions came from Oxford’s John Bull, Peter Philips and Richard Dering, all of whom went to live and work abroad in order to have the freedom to compose what they wanted. Spanish contributions came from the Seville genius Francesco Guerrero, blind organist Antonio de Cabezon, and priest-composer Juan Vasquez.