Choir meme page helps 430-year-old Byrd motet enter Classic FM Hall of Fame

1 April 2024, 12:52 | Updated: 1 April 2024, 15:02

William Byrd and his early place of work, Lincoln Cathedral
William Byrd and his early place of work, Lincoln Cathedral. Picture: Getty

By Kyle Macdonald

Social media sharing from the choral community has helped lift a cult choral motet, Byrd’s ‘Ne Irascaris’, into our pantheon of Top 300 classical music greats.

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A piece of ancient choral music has made a sensational debut in the Classic FM Hall of Fame chart, thanks to a niche choral meme page.

The Classic FM Hall of Fame is the world’s biggest poll of classical music tastes. Every year hundreds of thousands of votes are cast, and the Top 300 pieces counted down live on air over Easter weekend. You can hear the number one for 2024 revealed by Classic FM’s Dan Walker before 9pm this Easter Monday evening.

The poll is often dominated by the works of Vaughan Williams, Beethoven, Mozart, and last year’s winner Rachmaninov and his Piano Concerto No.2. Recent years have seen the rise of composers such as Clara Schumann, Florence Price, and the genre of video game music.

But the choral content creators behind the page In Quires and Places Where They Meme felt that 2024 should be the year of Renaissance composer William Byrd.

Byrd is regarded as one of the greatest of all English composers, writing a large body of church music as well as instrumental works and song. His emotionally-charged music makes him quite unique among composers of the Renaissance period, making him something of a cult favourite with choral singers.

Keen to encourage votes for Byrd’s music in the initial stages of the poll, and to ensure that its followers were all singing from the same hymn sheet (or partbook), In Quires and Places Where They Meme first consulted about the piece of music to campaign for. The five-voice motet Ne irascaris Domine was an overwhelming favourite – and so, a voting campaign shared across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter began.

Just before 1pm on the final day of the chart, Classic FM’s Anne-Marie Minhall revealed the piece at No.41and highest new entry in the Top 300. Classic FM presenter Ritua Shah was also on hand to help share what made this a historic Hall of Fame moment.

William Byrd published the piece as part of a wider collection of church music in 1589. The music is written in two distinct parts with the Latin words telling the story of the Israelites in exile in Babylon. Byrd is renowned for his expressive word-setting in his choral music, as well as his striking, at times very modern-sounding harmony.

Singer, conductor and director of the choir Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies said the drama, contrast and sense of emotional journey made Ne irascaris Domine a longtime favourite of many choral singers.

“I think one of the reasons singers enjoy is the piece takes you on an emotional journey, into the depths of despair. But even at the piece’s darkest moments there are glimmers of hope,” he told Classic FM.

Byrd’s Ne irascaris Domine sung by VOCES8.

In Quires and Places Where They Meme often posts quirky memes and spoofs about church music, chorister life and the choral industry.

And it’s not the first time the page has made headlines. In 2021, guidelines issued by the Welsh government appeared to reference a spoof article from the account, which had jokingly claimed tenors were more likely to spread COVID-19 than altos and sopranos.

William Byrd died in July 1623, and there have been concerts and events making the 400th anniversary year of his passing.

And now, there’s a place in the Classic FM Hall of Fame for the great English composer. It proves his music lives on as brightly as ever – while also providing a good number of memes along the way...