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William BYRD (C1540 - 1623): The Great Service

[I] "The Great Service"
The Cardinall's Musick
Dir: Andrew Carwood
rec: Nov 14 - 16, 2011, Arundel Castle (Fitzalan Chapel)
Hyperion - CDA67937 (© 2012) (59'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations

Make ye joy to God all the earth a 5 [5]; Praise our Lord, all ye gentiles a 6 [5]; The Great Service a 10; This day Christ was born a 6 [5]; Turn our captivity, O Lord a 6 [5]; Unto the hills mine eyes I lift a 6 [3]

Carys Lane, Cecilia Osmond, soprano; Caroline Trevor, contralto; Patrick Craig, David Gould, David Martin, alto; William Balkwill, Simon Wall, tenor; Robert Evans, Robert Macdonald, bass; Robert Quinney, organ

[II] "The Great Service in the Chapel Royal"
Musica Contexta; The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble; Steven Devine, organ
Dir: Simon Ravens
rec: May 2 - 4, 2011, London, St John's Church, Upper Norwood
Chandos - CHAN 0789 (© 2012) (67'24")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations

Constitues eos a 6 (1. Pars) [4]; Hodie Simon Petrus a 6 [4]; Nunc scio vere a 6 (1. Pars) [4]; O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth a 6; Prelude in C (MB 24); Psalm 114: When Israel came out of Egypt [2]; Psalm 47: O clap your hands together [1]; Sing joyfully unto God our strength a 6; The Great Service a 10; Verse (Fantasia) in C (MB 28)

[MC] Andrea Cochrane, Leonora Dawson-Bowling, Lilla Grindlay, Andra Patterson, Lucy Taylor, soprano; Ben Byram-Wigfield, Simon Lillystone, Peter North, Samir Savant, Stephen Shellard, Mark Williams, alto; Patrick Allies, Andrew Hope, Adrian Horsewood, tenor; Robert Easting, Chris Hunter, Philipp Pratt, bass
[ECSE] Gawain Glenton, Sam Goble, cornett; Tom Lees, Emily White, Andrew Harwood-White, Adrian France, sackbut

Sources: [1] First Preces and Psalms 47, 54, 100, [ms]; [2] Second Preces and Psalms 114, 55, 119, 24, [ms]; [3] Songs of Sundrie Natures, 1589; [4] Gradualia seu cantionum sacrarum, liber secundus, 1607; [5] Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets ... fit for Voyces or Viols, 1611

Score The Great Service

When under Henry VIII the English church broke away from Rome the religious ceremonies and rituals changed. The elaborate Latin music which was common at the time was increasingly replaced by music in the vernacular, often technically less demanding and syllabic in nature. This process was intensified under Henry's son Edward VI. When he died at the age of 15, he was succeeded by his half-sister Mary. As she was Roman Catholic she tried to restore the old Church's dominance, and in the wake of this the Latin liturgy was restored as well. But she only ruled for five years, and after her death in 1558 she was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth. Under her rule the religious balance shifted again, and as a result the Latin liturgy was substituted by a liturgy in the vernacular. The Book of Common Prayer was the symbol of this change.

For composers this liturgical turmoil was not easy to deal with. Once Protestantism had firmly established itself under Elizabeth, the position of those composers who remained true to their Roman Catholic conviction became rather delicate. It is not always clear what exactly the religious convictions of composers were, but in the case of William Byrd there can be little doubt. He regularly landed at the wrong side of the law when he was absent from services of the Church of England. In the 1580s two attempts were made to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. They failed, and as Byrd was associated with one of those who were involved with one of these plots he was investigated and subjected to various restrictions. That said, he worked most of his life within the Church of England, such as a member of the Chapel Royal for many years. This explains that he wrote some liturgical music in the vernacular, although it is often stated that he seems to have done so unwillingly. Therefore the Great Service causes some surprise as it is quite unusual in comparison to any other music on English texts from his pen.

Andrew Carwood, in his liner-notes, comes up with several possible explanations. It is generally assumed that the Great Service dates from the 1590s. At that time Byrd left London and settled in Stondon Massey in 1594. Carwood suggests that this work could be a kind of farewell to his colleagues in the Chapel Royal. He also refers to the fact that the years around 1590 were a very fertile period in Byrd's career which saw him completing a set of keyboard works and the publication of several collections of sacred works and of music for domestic use. Simon Ravens for his part tries to put the religious issue into perspective. He states that the view that Byrd "was a devout Catholic but a reluctant Anglican" is a false distinction in his case. He argues that his connection to the Chapel Royal suggests otherwise, and the "lavish ceremonial" in the chapel must have been to his liking and not that different from what he preferred. The fact that the liturgical texts were in the vernacular can hardly have been a problem as he himself set various English texts to music, for instance in his Psalmes, Sonets and Songs and the Songs of Sundrie Natures.

Whatever the truth may be, there is unanimity in the admiration for this large-scale work which was discovered only in 1922 in Durham Cathedral. One of its notable features is the fact that it includes the canticles for Mattins, Evensong and the Communion Service. It is one of the reasons this work is called Great Service. This label is also justified by the scoring for ten voices in two choirs, which is unique in Byrd's oeuvre and also in liturgical music of his time. In this scoring he takes advantage of the opposition of Decani and Cantores in the chapel. Carwood states that he did so "not simply to provide variety but more often for dramatic effect". This seems to be in line with the overall character of the work as Byrd also juxtaposes verse singers and full choir, higher and lower voices as well as homophony and imitative polyphony.

At about the same time two recordings of this work were released which are considerably different in regard to performance practice. The Cardinall's Musick delivers the most 'conventional' performance, as it were, with ten voices - one per part - and an additional organ. In contrast Musica Contexta approaches this work from a rather different angle which includes the use of wind instruments playing colla voce. "There is no single source of the work; but spread around the libraries of Britain are copies of the ten vocal parts (more or less intact and in agreement) and occasional parts for organ", according to Simon Ravens. However, as this work was apparently intended for performance in the Chapel Royal it is interesting to note that here the choir was occasionally supported by cornetts and sackbuts. Ravens adds that in the early 17th century these instruments are known to have played at all three cathedrals which held manuscripts of the Great Service, Durham, York and Worcester.

This is used as a justification to perform this work with cornetts and sackbuts as well as organ. That is not all. The Great Service is performed within a liturgical context, with additional vocal and instrumental music. Part of that are Latin motets from Byrd's Gradualia of 1607. In my view liturgical reconstructions are interesting and useful, even though they are inevitably speculative. Only in very rare cases we know exactly which music was performed during a liturgical event. However, the pieces chosen should at least be plausible which means that they could have been performed as part of a particular event. That is not the case here. The Gradualia belong to the Roman Catholic liturgy and had no place in any service of the Church of England. Likewise the Great Service could not be used in the Roman Catholic liturgy and a scoring for ten voices would not be very appropriate for clandestine worship. Therefore in this 'reconstruction' elements are mixed which definitely have never have been performed in one and the same context. The fact that these Gradualia are performed instrumentally hardly makes a difference. "There is no specific evidence of this practice, but the idea that Catholic elements were slipped under the radar into an Anglican service fits nicely with what we know of Byrdís covert activities", Simon Ravens states. From a perspective of historical performance practice this can't be taken seriously.

That said, a direct comparison of the two performances turns out in favour of Musica Contexta. The fact that Andrew Carwood has made no attempt to create any kind of liturgical context is the least important of the issues. More problematic is that some singers permit themselves a slight vibrato which is completely inappropriate here. It damages the ensemble, especially in passages for reduced forces. That is not the case with Musica Contexta. With its 17 voices this ensemble is somewhat larger than The Cardinall's Musick; the passages for reduced forces are also performed with the full ensemble. A reduction of the number of singers would have been preferable. There is a difference in the pronunciation of English: Musica Contexta has opted for a historical pronunciation, whereas The Cardinall's Musick sticks to modern English. Musica Contexta also pays more attention to the text; the tempi are generally a little slower.

The approach of Musica Contexta is very speculative and partly even implausible. However, the performance is generally better and more satisfying than The Cardinall's Musick's. The very idea of using cornetts and sackbuts in liturgical music is an interesting idea. This issue deserves to be more thoroughly investigated as it could give us some new perspectives on the performance practice in the Elizabethan era.

The Cardinall's Musick has added some pieces from two collections of music on English texts mentioned above. This is not music for liturgical use but rather for performance in domestic surroundings. These receive better performances than the Great Service, but they can hardly change the overall assessment of their disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

The Cardinall's Musick
Musica Contexta
The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble

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