Multiculturalism in a Different Key

Glenn Ricketts

Contemporary academic multiculturalism has often gotten its knocks at this site, what, with its relentless shoehorning of reality through the iron prism of race, gender, class, sexuality, and ethnicity, etc., etc. And given this dreary philosophy’s ascendancy on most campuses, we can no doubt expect an uninterrupted supply of grist for our mill.

Today, though, I’m not here to complain. Instead, I’d like to consider what “multicultural” might mean if it could be unburdened of the rubbish with which it’s otherwise associated. Believe me, I know that I’m not going to effect a sea change.   But I’d still like to illustrate how the term might actually make sense, if it hadn’t been co-opted by ideology.

First, please take a few minutes to listen to the following choral piece:

That’s the English composer William Byrd’s five-part motet Vigilate, which first appeared in a 1589 collection, Cantiones Sacrae.   The performance here is by the Taipei Chamber Singers, under the direction of guest conductor Robert Chilcott, a prominent British tenor and composer, one of the founders and long-time members of The King’s Singers. 

So what’s multicultural about this? In the first place, we’ve heard a late specimen of High Renaissance polyphony, set in an archaic European ritual language – Latin –delivered very ably by singers whose own linguistic, religious and musical traditions have next to nothing in common with their equivalents in Elizabethan England. For that matter, the sonorities of the music you’ve just heard have to sound a bit strange to many contemporary American ears.  It was composed in one of the old modal scales, rather than the major/minor key system that has dominated Western music since the early 17th century. Throughout the score, half-steps occur at intervals quite unfamiliar to modern listeners.

But here’s an especially choice irony: Vigilate and its composer were a very, very uneasy fit within England’s theological and political mix of 1589. Indeed, they’re literally countercultural. Byrd (1540? – 1623) enjoyed the patronage and favor of Elizabeth I, and exerted major influence on the then-emerging Anglican musical tradition (The Great Service, among other works, really set the mold). Yet despite his apparently privileged status, he was an obstinate, recusant Catholic, often assessed stiff fines and threatened with imprisonment.  He refused to attend the Anglican services for which he had composed the music on which his reputation largely rested until the 20th century. 

That doesn’t necessarily make him a hypocrite or an opportunist:  if your boss is the queen and she attends a different church than you do, it’s probably advisable to please her now and again. But then, music has always had the capacity to bridge seemingly unbridgeable divides, and it’s easy to find other composers at this time who skillfully navigated the perilous religious and political straits of the late 16th century. Some notable Catholic liturgical music of this period was actually produced by Protestants, such as the German Lutheran Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), or the Dutch Calvinist Jan Sweelinck (1562-1621).   In any case, Byrd’s much larger output of Latin liturgical works was literally unsung for 300 years after his death, and has only recently been recorded in its entirety.

But in 1589, Vigilate was not simply out of the English mainstream, it bordered on political subversion. The use of Latin liturgical music was generally prohibited in the Anglican Church by this time, although the queen did permit it on occasion in the Chapel Royal. A number of Byrd’s compositions were performed there, and he appears to have played with fire, broadcasting almost brazen warnings to his harassed coreligionists.   Consider the biblical text (Mark,13:35-37) from which Vigilate is taken:

Vigilate, nescitis enim quando dominus domus veniat,

sero, an media nocte, an gallicantu, an mane. Vigilate, ergo

ne cum venerit repente, inveniat vos dormientes. Quod

autem dico vobis, omnibus dico, vigilate


Watch, for you know not when the master of the house

will come – in the evening, at midnight, at the cock crowing,

or in the morning. Watch therefore, lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch.

Although traditionally part of the Catholic Advent liturgy, the same passage in this context was potentially explosive, especially given Byrd’s musical enunciation of specific words. Listen again and see if you can pick up his striking rendition of “gallicantu” (the cock crowing), at 1:04 – and “repente,” (suddenly, unexpectedly), at 1:55 - as the singers rapidly go back and forth, between the voice lines.   His fellow Catholics, he almost shouts - - directly under his sovereign’s generous nose- - needed to be unceasingly vigilant and take care, lest they get caught napping by undercover religious police. Pretty risky stuff that could have cost Byrd a lot more than his job, depending on the queen’s mood or the constantly shifting political winds of the time. 

So why would Taiwanese musicians be performing this piece? Just a guess, but I’m thinking that they and their audience like it.  As art often does, Vigilate possesses a transcendent dimension that rises far beyond the particular circumstances of its origins; the divides of time, culture and an unfamiliar religious tradition melt away easily, as I think that our singers would agree. Any number can play.

That is, unless you’re fixated on race, gender, class, sexuality and ethnicity. If that’s the case, you’ll probably never get around to hearing the music.   

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