Infelix ego had been set before by Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore and Orlandus Lassus but none of these comes even close to this emotional tour de force. Byrd would have known Tallis’s radical setting of the prayer Suscipe quaeso Domine which uses homophony set against polyphony to underline rhetorical questions and which must inform the younger composer’s setting. But more than this Byrd seems to have an emotional link with Savonarola’s words and to understand the mindset which has given rise to them. Savonarola sits in his cell in Florence awaiting execution for having followed his heart and his religious faith. At one time he was acclaimed by the people and his beliefs were an integral part of their lives. Byrd is in England, cut off from his faith and the rest of the Church to which he belongs. His colleagues are persecuted for their beliefs, beliefs which had been held by most of the people in England. Perhaps it is this shared metaphorical experience which leads Byrd to understand the real power of this text. There is not the space here for a full analysis of this Renaissance symphony, nor time to refer to all of the telling and subtle gestures which permeate the piece. The upward melodies which express the yearning in the writer’s eyes looking up to heaven for redemption, like Marlowe’s Faustus seeing the blood of Christ running in the heavens but being unable to access it. The juxtaposition of polyphony with homophony throughout: the constant ebbing and flowing of emotion as powerful as the sea. The build up of tension caused by an extended period of imitation around one of Byrd’s most frequently chosen words (‘misericordiam’ or ‘mercy’). The master stroke of a caesura followed by an astonishing chord progression and then a coda where it seems as if the longed-for mercy has actually been received.
from notes by Andrew Carwood © 2010