Ambrose of Milan vs. William Byrd

Welcome to the proverbial Bird Cage as Ambrose of Milan takes on William Byrd in the Battle of the Birds. Who will emerge as Big Bird? That's up to you as you choose between a 4th century bishop and 16th century composer.

Yesterday, Adomnan of Iona easily slid past Joseph Vaz 68% to 32% to advance to the Saintly Sixteen.

Also, yesterday, Tim and Scott previewed the coming week's battles in yet another epic (they're all epic, if you haven't caught on by now) edition of Monday Madness.

Vote now!

Ambrose of Milan

On the off chance you find yourself in a tense gathering to choose a bishop, and a child’s voice sounds out, offering your name as a prime choice, you might wish to run, and quickly. It was how Ambrose, at the time an unbaptized catechumen, found himself on a journey that would lead to him being baptized and ordained as bishop within a week.

Ambrose of Milan was born around 339. From a young age he was recognized as being an excellent speaker and became a successful attorney. In 370, he became governor of that portion of Milan and the surrounding region. It was four years later, when the Arian bishop of twenty years died, and the city was torn in strife as to the election of a new bishop. Ambrose, in his role as governor, came to the electing convention to appeal for peace – at which point a child’s voice first cried “Ambrose for bishop!” with the crowd quickly following [legend has it that in this moment a bird alighted on his head]. He tried to reject the call. Yet when word reached the emperor, rather than grant Ambrose a reprieve, he quipped that he was pleased to have chosen governors who were fit for episcopal office. Ambrose was baptized and ordained bishop within the week. He was only thirty-five years old.

Ambrose took on a tutor to guide him in Christian thought, studying the works of Origen and Basil among others. His considerable skill at poetry and oratory made him a prolific hymn writer, and a skillful author of practical discourses on Christian faith and practice. He became a mentor and influence on perhaps the most influential theologian of Western Christianity – Augustine of Hippo – and he himself baptized Augustine on Easter Eve of 387.

Perhaps Ambrose’s greatest mark of distinction was that he did not hesitate to stand fast in the face of secular authorities, including the emperors of both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires. He warned the young emperor Gratian of the importance of upholding the catholic faith against the Arian heresy – even though Gratian’s own uncle was chief protector to the Arians. He told Valentinian that the emperor was in the church, and not above it. And when Theodosius became the undisputed ruler of both the eastern and western, Ambrose would rebuke and excommunicate him for his role in a massacre at Thessalonica that had killed thousands of innocents. Theodosius, realizing Ambrose’s sway and moral voice, did public penance and was restored to the community of the church.

Ambrose would survive Theodosius by two years and would die on Good Friday of 397 at the age of fifty-seven. Ambrose was buried in the crypt of the Basilica that now bears his name in Milan.

Collect for Ambrose of Milan
O God, who gave your servant Ambrose grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honor of your Name: Mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence in preaching and faithfulness in ministering your Word, that your people may be partakers with them of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (LFF 2022)

David Sibley

William Byrd

William Byrd is considered one of the most important, influential, and famous Renaissance Anglican church music composers. His standing ranks up there with Henry Purcell.

Byrd was born in 1539 or 1540 in London, where he grew up. Wealthy, educated, and raised with a passionate love for music, he was a student, assistant, and friend of Thomas Tallis, a well-known and important musician with whom he is often paired.

Byrd began composing music at an early age and may have been a chorister at the esteemed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He achieved renown as an organist and chorus master at Lincoln Cathedral, about 150 miles north of London. This notable position and some later appointments brought him within the circle of the reigning Queen Elizabeth I.

Even though his religion had been outlawed by the time he was an adult, Byrd skirted under the religious climate of the day and remained a lifelong Roman Catholic. He composed church music for both the Anglican Church and his own church. Although a Roman Catholic, he was on good terms with Queen Elizabeth I, who was known to be an accomplished musician as was her father, King Henry VIII.

Byrd was a prolific writer of sacred music and published volumes of religious songs, psalms, masses, and madrigals for instruments and/or voices, sometimes collaborating with others. It is estimated that more than 600 of his compositions remain. Among his many works – both small and grandiose - for the Anglican Church are  “O Lord, Make thy Servant Elizabeth our Queen” and “How Long Shall Mine Enemies Sing Joyfully.”

His association with Tallis prompted a prestigious appointment by Queen Elizabeth I for the selecting, printing, publishing, and selling of music, both religious and secular.

Byrd died of heart failure in Essex 400 hundred years ago, on July 4, 1623, having survived the Elizabethan era as a Roman Catholic. He is buried in an unmarked grave at St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Stondon Massey, Essex, England.

Interestingly, Byrd’s works do not appear in the widely used Episcopal Church Hymnal 1982, although six compositions by his sometimes-writing partner Tallis are included. Byrd and Tallis, along with fellow English composer John Merbecke, were listed in Holy Women Holy Men for November 21, but they do not appear in Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2022.

Collect for William Byrd
O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP)

Neva Rae Fox

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76 comments on “Ambrose of Milan vs. William Byrd”

  1. This matchup is just unfair! Both are worthy, and Ambrose is my favorite post-Nicene theologian. I won't be surprised if the final vote is razor-thin.

  2. As someone who has been "volentold" to a job on more than one occasion, I am with Ambrose today!

  3. This was so hard!! Ambrose gets my vote for his erudition and beneficial influence over secular power-players, and for his readiness to step into a difficult position, learn not only the ropes but the core of his calling, and be a powerful force for good. But Byrd and the music of the Elizabethan era—oh, my! As a choral singer all my life, I hated not voting for him. Terrible to have to choose between them without a limerick to guide me!

  4. Though music often calls me into the "thin places" and a sense of pure worship of the blessed Trinity, Ambrose is the saint most needed in today's world of chaos and hatred. His was a gift of truth that brought repentance and reconciliation. Would that he could speak to our world today.

  5. Ambrose will probably be the winner today but I'll vote for Byrd because his music has been so inspirational and added so much to worship and adoration of the Trinity. These competitions are so difficult!

  6. So difficult to decide today, as both are worthy, and I truly could vote for either! Missing your limerick, John.

    1. My apologies for the delay, and thanks to Kate and Richard, whose earlier comments inspired this:

      Though reluctant to be “voluntold”
      As a bishop his actions were bold:
      Theodosius, he said
      Must atone for his dead
      Ere he’d be welcomed back to the fold.

  7. Thank you, O Supreme Executive Committee, for leaving The Trashmen's 'Surfin' Bird' as this morning's earworm. (I am reasonably sure you know about the Bird. Everybody knows...)

  8. I relate to Ambrose, called from secular life to the ministry. Ambrose's courage to challenge emperors when they were wrong is inspiring. I thank God I was never called to challenge authority.

  9. Ambrose is matched up with Byrd
    Whose music inspires when heard.
    The bishop's influence so profound,
    The musician makes such a great sound,
    Today's entrants square off with loins gird.

  10. Byrd!
    Musican who was able to cross the divide and bring joyful music to both the "Roman" and "English" churches.
    "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church...We look for the resurrection of the dead,and the life of the world to come. Amen."

  11. This wasa tough one today as both men gave so much that are important in a celebration of the Lord- the message and the music. Both are worthy, but my heart went with Ambrose because it is the message that truly impacts how we live our lives. Besides, how could I not support the man whose Basillica I have visted.

  12. Having elected The Very Rev'd Kara Waganer Sherer (Diocese of Chicago) to be the 9th Bishop of Rochester (NY) last weekend, the Collect for Ambrose made today's vote easy.

  13. A very tough pairing today, indeed. But for his reminder to one emperor but echoing through the ages that secular leaders are not above the Church, Ambrose gets my vote.

  14. I love Ambrose, and I'm sure he will win. But as an early music singer who was part of an all Byrd program honoring the 400th anniversary of by death last fall, he absolutely gets my vote. If you want to know why, take 3 minutes to listen to "O Lord, Make Thy Servant, Elizabeth our Queen" If you have a bit more time, listen to "Ne Iscaris, Domine," heart-breakingly beautiful in its plea for divine mercy for the Holy Land whose "cities are desolate."

      1. Ooh, the Advent Prose: "Be not wroth very sore, O Lord, neither remember iniquity for ever ... thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation ... "

        So poignant for our time, as you say, Jack.

        (And imagine Byrd, a Roman Catholic who lived into his 80s, watching so many monastic structures, shut down by Henry VIII, falling into decay as wealthy landowners pillaged them for their roofing slates and their hewn stones, to build their grand new country houses. Shakespeare's line "bare ruined choirs where once the sweet birds sang" describes not only the bare branches of winter but also the roofless desolate sanctuaries that once echoed with psalms. Byrd's music for Catholic liturgy was written to be sung in secret by just a few voices.)

        Thank God that scripture gives us words to lament as well as praise. But how long, O Lord?

  15. A child's voice said "tolle lege" to Augustine (or maybe something about a pear), and a child's voice said "Ambrose for bishop." Those children would have been more accurate if they had said "apocryphal." These stories have the whiff of myth about them, or at least some element of self-justification, and they gild men who were already well off and successful. I'm voting for Byrd, because: music. I cannot imagine services without music. So today I'm saying (in a child's voice): "Put a Byrd on it."

    1. Thank you! I have not voted yet but I have flip-flopped back and forth throughout these commments. "Put a Byrd on it" finally helped me decide.

  16. As a retired church musician, I had to vote for William Byrd. However, Ambrose is certainly a worthy choice for his leadership in the early church.

    1. Yes! All honor to both deserving servants of God and the Church. I think for me it comes down to St. Thomas More's great line in my favorite movie of all, about another devout Roman Catholic in the sixteenth century, "A Man for All Seasons, the 1967 (original) version: "Finally, it is not a matter of reason; finally it is a matter of love."

  17. Byrd's music is glorious sing, to pray with and simply listen to, so as a chorister I had to vote for him. Go Byrd! I love that he was able to stay true to his own religious beliefs (and avoid the martyr's pyre) while writing music for both the RC and newly emerging Anglican church.

    1. "Avoid the martyr's pyre": Yes! Fascinating, isn't it? I'm reading the historical novel Wolf Hall, and I wonder how Byrd and Tallis might have been treated if they had lived in the time of Henry VIII instead of Elizabeth I. My guess is, not well.

  18. Ambrose and Byrd:
    Another difficult-to-choose pairing.
    Pity: I cannot award a half-vote to each.
    My immediate thought was to go with Ambrose,
    then considered Byrd might need support,
    so I voted for him.
    By the present tally, happy I did.
    Ambrose will survive to contest another day ...

  19. I voted for Ambrose, but a tip of the hat to Neva Rae Fox for a wonderful collect this morning.

  20. This was a difficult one for me!
    How could I not vote for a composer of joyful music.
    A new Hymnal is out and I shall check for Byrd/Tallis

  21. I have delighted and honored to sing many of Byrd's compositions from college into my later years. If, as the saying goes, "to sing is to pray twice," then Byrd prays triple by composing glorious music. He has my vote and praise!

    1. "The one who signs prays twice." What a beautiful saying! Thanks be to God for the music of Byrd, Tallis, and others of that period. Nothing, in my opinion, has surpassed it or ever will.