When I tell non-musicians that I sing in a choir that specializes in Renaissance sacred music – by which I really mean, sacred music of the Christian tradition – I am sometimes met with puzzled expressions. After all, I am a moderately observant Jew – why would I choose to spend my time singing music composed for the glorification of Christ?

The truth is that European Jews – especially those from Eastern Europe, like my ancestors – simply do not possess a deep well of sacred choral compositions dating back to the Renaissance. The vast majority of choral music that was composed in the Renaissance – and in the subsequent centuries – was sacred, not secular. So Jews who want to engage with the Western choral tradition are more or less required to sing an endless stream of Masses, Magnificats, and motets.

The latter category – motets – sometimes brings me back to more familiar textual territory. Renaissance composers frequently mined the Old Testament for the text of their motets. When we first begin working on a motet in rehearsal, I often find myself singing a text in Latin, translating it in my head into English… and then realizing that, actually, I can also remember some of the words in Hebrew as well. The composers who set these Judaic texts often found ways to reinterpret them in ways that incorporated their own Christian beliefs, finding resonances between their own life circumstances and those of the ancient Israelites.

The English composer William Byrd (c. 1539-1623) did exactly this, to stunning effect, in his motet Ne irascaris. The text for this motet comes from the Book of Isaiah, whose fiery prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem and its eventual salvation by the Messiah have made it particularly significant to Christianity. The text Byrd uses for this motet, from Isaiah 64:9-10, describes a deserted Jerusalem following the destruction of the Temple:

Ne irascaris Domine satis,
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos.

Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est,
Jerusalem desolata est.

Do not be so angry, o Lord,
nor remember our sin any longer.
Look upon us, for we are all your people.

Your holy cities have become desert.
Zion has become desert;
Jerusalem has been left desolate.

Byrd, a Catholic, managed to not only survive, but thrive as a composer under the Protestant reign of Queen Elizabeth I, serving the Queen as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Yet, even though he dedicated several of his compositions to the Queen, Byrd also composed many works to be performed at the secret Catholic services that took place throughout the countryside during Elizabeth’s reign.

Composed within decades of the dissolution of English monasteries by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, it is not hard to see the parallels that Byrd must have felt between his own circumstance as a Catholic in newly-Protestant England and the Jews following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, his setting of Isaiah’s text is full of the kind of poignancy that could only come from lived experience.

The motet’s opening phrases have a hauntingly serene quality, as though the singers are attempting to soothe God’s anger through their dulcet tones. The opening of the motet veers toward a “major-key” sound that does not often come through so clearly in Renaissance music.

In the second part of the motet, as the choir begins to sing “facta est deserta” (“have become desert”, around 4:30 on Polyhymnia’s recording), the modality takes a noticeably darker turn toward minor, reflecting the bitterness of the Israelites’ situation.

After the choir’s laments of “facta est deserta” give way to silence (around 5:15), a truly remarkable moment unfolds. The choir, which until now has been singing polyphonically (with each voice following its own musical line and independent rhythm), comes together to sing the words “Sion deserta facta est” homophonically (in the same rhythm). As the normal ebb and flow of the polyphony comes to a halt, time seems to stand still. By setting this text to a completely different texture than the rest of the motet, and ensuring the words come through crystal clear to the audience, Byrd is sending us a signal: this is the heart of the motet, the part that matters most to him. It’s not hard to see why, considering his own experiences as a Catholic in Elizabethan England.

So many Jewish prayers and songs mourn the destruction of the Temple and the Jews’ repeated exiles from Israel – indeed, it is a central theme of Judaism. Byrd captures the poignancy and suffering of the Israelites in a way that rings true to my own experience of the text as a Jew, and brings this ancient text to life through a musical style far removed from the typical sounds of Ashkenazi synagogue services.

English translation of Latin text graciously provided by my classicist husband, Tim Gorta.