William Byrd and the uses of consolation

We have a new baby in the house, my son Dexter, seven weeks old tomorrow, and although he seems to be a pretty mellow kid, he’s been giving us the usual sleepless nights of a new baby. I say ‘us’. I mean mostly Ioanna my wife, who’s been breastfeeding him. Breastfeeding can be exhausting and unsatisfying for everyone involved, to put it mildly, and although I am the one to put little Dexter to bed in the small hours of the morning, there have been some sleep-deprived late-night and small-hours and early-morning arguments about whether this or that ought to have been done better or more wisely, all of which could be viewed as nature’s way of telling you that you really don’t want to have any more kids. But in any case, strains are put on bonds of affection; you forget how to look past the moment’s enormous stresses, you forget that they’re transient, and you forget why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place because it all seems to be too much of a struggle, and you’re tired and you just want to sleep and you fear that you’re weak.

So this morning I took our daughter off, leaving my wife in charge of our baby, and having dropped Lena off at school with a kiss and a brief hug, as the grey early summer skies began to spit rain down I started walking to work.

Whenever I drop my daughter off to school I have a great walk to work. It’s a walk that always makes me late, but that’s less important than the fact that I get to traverse one of the great pieces of inner urban green spaces in Europe, the Meadows, a large former deer park in the southern part of Edinburgh city centre. As I left the streets and headed into the park, I put on some music. Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices.

I don’t know exactly why, but the music hit me especially strongly. If we have any brains or moral sense whatever, we rightly resist easy consolation in music; I mean, music that tells us that it’s all okay, that we just need to shut up and let it go. Stephen Deusner’s brilliant Salon article on the Eagles is a good example of why quietistic music — like the Eagles’! — is so hateful; it preserves privilege and pats the listener on the back and refuses to engage in anything. (My worst single musical experience ever was playing bass on an extended jam of ‘Hotel California’ in my secondary school years, one dismal weekend afternoon.)

But that’s not to say that we never deserve consolation for anything. Even after the inequalities in society have been remedied, even after we’ve fixed the whole food-air deal, as Bill Hicks called it, we will still be faced with the problems of how to love and live with each other, how to reconcile ourselves to the things that we can’t change, such as ageing and the waning of our powers and energies, and those are problems that art is optimised for. Byrd’s music is good at that; it’s one of the reasons why he is not just the first great English composer but maybe the first great composer of the modern era. Byrd wrote his masses at a time when the English Catholic community was having to conduct its services in secret, because of Protestant paranoia about a Catholic conspiracy to bring down the country. Maybe it’s the awareness of panic and dread, together with the forceful insistence that they need to be overcome, that makes Byrd’s music speak to us now, five centuries later.

It’s good to despise music that just wants to shut us up, but not all consolations should be rejected. It’s when you think that political change will fix everything that you are doomed to tragic disappointment. The blues can help us to live with the unfixable nature of certain aspects of the world. So can [insert your music of choice here]. And so can William Byrd.

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William Byrd and the uses of consolation

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