About this work
In the years following the publication of the Cantiones in 1575 English composer William Byrd seemed to be moving further and further away from the large vocal ensemble music (six, seven-even occasionally nine voices) that had occupied him during his younger days. Nonetheless, no fewer than eight six-voice motets appear in the 1589 and 1591 Cantiones sacrae publications. These pieces are classifiable on general stylistic grounds as either rather old-fashioned (about half) or strikingly forward-looking (half again). Whereas in his younger days Byrd was concerned with quantity of sound and thickness of texture when using ensembles of this size, in the four more progressive of these six-voice pieces we find him emphasizing instead the same kind of streamlined textures and motivic shapes that are so prominent in his four- and five-voice motets and that so distinctly mark his later work from his earlier. Domine non sum digens is, with its fellow prayer-motet Domine salva nos, one of these more progressive pieces, and affords a good look at Byrd's music as it begins to take on some vague characteristics that will, in the generations to come, shape the Baroque era. The text of Domine non sum digens is drawn from the Magnificat antiphon tradition, and Byrd sets it in an appropriate four-section structure (three of relatively equal size, the penultimate one, however, being much shorter). Throughout the work Byrd uses his six voices as smaller groups rather than allowing all six to define a dense contrapuntal web that would contradict both the intimacy of the text and the lean motivic associations that Byrd is so eager to forge. Contrast and fragmentation (always, however, masterfully balanced) are focal points of the work, such that the opening monotone "Domine" is immediately set against far more active imitation, and, rather than employ extended lines (either musically or textually), Byrd emphasizes small musical bits again and again, fusing them together into larger gestural wholes-the first word alone is treated almost thirty times in the opening passage of the piece.