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William BYRD (1540-1623): Masses & motets

[I] Mass for four voices, motets and psalms
Stile Antico
rec: May 13 - 15, 2022, London, All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak
Decca - 485 3951 (© 2023) (69'48")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Assumpta est Maria a 5 [2]; Gaudeamus omnes in Domino a 5 [2]; Laudate Dominum omnes gentes a 6b [3]; Mass for four voices; Optimam partem elegit a 5 [2]; Praise our Lord, all ye gentiles a 6b [4]; Propter veritatem - Assumpta est Maria a 5 [2]; Retire, my soul, consider thine estate a 5 [4]; Tribue Domine a 6ab [1]; Turn our captivity, O Lord a 6d [4]

Sources: [1] Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, 1575; [2] Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae, 1605; [3] Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae, 1607; [4] Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets, 1611;

Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey, soprano; Emma Ashby, Cara Curran, Rosie Parker, contralto; Andrew Griffiths, Jonathan Hanley, Benedict Hymas, tenor; James Arthur, Will Dawes, Nathan Harrison, bass; with Matthew Howard, tenora; Angus McPhee, baritoneb

[II] "Mass for five voices"
The Gesualdo Six
Dir: Owain Park
rec: June 28 - 30 & Sept 12, 2022, London, All Hallows, Gospel Oak
Hyperion - CDA68416 (© 2023) (66'13")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Afflicti pro peccatis nostris a 6 [3]; Ave Maria a 5 [4]; Ave verum corpus a 4 [4]; Circumdederunt me a 5 [3]; De lamentatione Jeremiae prophetae a 5; Emendemus in melius a 5 [1]; Mass for five voices; Tristitia et anxietas a 5 [2]

Sources: [1] Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, 1575; [2] Liber primus sacrarum cantionum, 1589; [3] Liber secundus sacrarum cantionum, 1591 [4] Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae, 1605

Guy James, alto; Joseph Wicks, Josh Cooter, tenor; Michael Craddock, baritone; Samuel Mitchell, Owain Park, bass


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 no 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, for instance for many years as a member of the Chapel Royal. This explains why he wrote some liturgical music in the vernacular, although it is often stated that he seems to have done so unwillingly.

Last year (2023) Byrd's death was commemorated, which resulted in concerts and in the release of several recordings of his music. He hardly needs a commemoration, as he is one of the most frequently-performed composers of the Renaissance. However, especially outside the United Kingdom, his oeuvre may not be that well-known, probably with the exception of some pieces, such as his setting of Ave verum corpus, which opens the programme that The Gesualdo Six recorded. The two discs reviewed here have several things in common. The most obvious similarity is that both have a mass in the centre, and in both cases the sections of the respective masses are separated by other liturgical pieces. The second is that both focus on the Latin church music, although Stile Antico included some English works as well.

In the booklet to the Stile Antico disc, Kerry McCarthy explains that its album explores the music of Byrd's later years. Due to the increasing pressure on recusants in the early 1590s, Byrd moved away from London and his writing for the Chapel Royal came to an end. He settled at the Esssex countryside, where he lived under the protection of local Catholic gentry, in particular the Petre family. This is the time he composed a substantial amount of music to be performed at clandestine Catholic services. Among them are the three masses which were printed on simple pamphlets of sheet music, without title pages and without the name of the printer. However, the name of the composer was stated at the top of each page; there can be no doubt about Byrd's authorship.

In his masses Byrd confines himself to the Ordinary parts: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus and Agnus Dei. The texts of the Propers (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Sequence, Offertory and Communion) change depending on the time in the liturgical calendar. Byrd published settings of the Propers in his two volumes of Gradualia (1605, 1607). Both recordings put the respective mass in a kind of liturgical framework, but only Stile Antico decided to choose music for a specific feast, the Assumption of Mary, which is celebrated on 15 August. The Gloria is followed by Propter veritatem - Assumpta est Maria, the Credo by Assumpta est Maria, and the Sanctus & Benedictus by Optimam partem elegit ("Mary has chosen for herself the best part"). The Mary in the latter text - from Luke 10 - is entirely different from Mary, the mother of Christ, whose assumption is celebrated, but that seems to have been no problem for using it. The Mass for four voices was the first to be published, and may be the oldest of the three. Notable in this mass is especially the Agnus Dei, which includes some strong dissonances.

The earliest piece in the programme comes at the end: Tribue Domine is taken from the Cantiones Sacrae, the first publication of music by Byrd, together with his teacher Thomas Tallis. It is a monumental piece for six voices in the style of a votive antiphon. "In the Latin rite votive ritual is regarded as a class apart from the texts and chant prescribed for the calendar of church festivals because it can be performed at any time and, following the appropriate formalities, in any place" (New Grove).

The pieces on an English text are part of Byrd's last publication, the Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets of 1611. It is a mixture of sacred and secular works, intended for domestic use, and that brings us to the issue of the performance, and especially the line-up. There are good reasons to argue that a substantial part of Byrd's sacred music requires a rather intimate setting. The masses are performed today by cathedral choirs, but that is not the way they were sung in Byrd's time. Likewise, the motets were intended for clandestine Catholic services, and although we should not underestimate the size of the spaces where such services may have been celebrated, there seem to be good reasons to perform the masses and motets with smallish ensembles and in a not too reverberant acoustic. The English pieces recorded here are not even intended for liturgical use. From that angle the performances of Stile Antico are not differentiated enough. The largest part of the programme is performed with twelve voices, and in particular in the case of the pieces from the 1611 collection, that seems too much. That said, the quality of the singing of the ensemble as such is beyond doubt; it is admirable that the ensemble has been able to keep the high standard it has established since its foundation. The many admirers of Stile Antico will certainly not be disappointed.

Obviously, The Gesualdo Six consists of six voices, but in some pieces the number of singers is reduced. Ave verum corpus, for instance, is performed with four singers, according to the four-part scoring. This suggests that the ensemble wants to pay tribute to the circumstances under which many of Byrd's Latin pieces may have been performed. However, that is not the case. "While we could have chosen a more intimate, secluded venue to recreate the circumstances for which Byrd found himself composing, in preparing this music for record we found ourselves wanting to take the music off the page, released from the baggage of its creation, and to enjoy the full expressive potential of the writing", Owain Part states in the booklet. That may be understandable, but I find it regrettable. It is really time that serious attempts are made to perform Byrd's music in circumstances that may be close to those in his own time. So far only Rory McCleery seems to have attempted to realise this, in a recording with his Marian Consort (Delphian Records, 2020). That said, The Gesualdo Six produce a sound which is more intimate than the full-blooded sound of Stile Antico.

The heart of the programme is the Mass for five voices, the third and last of the three masses to be published, probably in 1594/95. The chamber-like character of the late Latin church music may be reflected by the frequent reduction of the number of voices in the Gloria. The Credo also seems to point in that direction; it includes declamatory passages. The Benedictus opens with solo lines, and in the Agnus Dei, the number of voices is increased until it reaches a five-part conclusion on the "dona nobis pacem". Both the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei include chromaticism.

Whereas Stile Antico decided to select Propers for a specific feast, The Gesualdo Six separates the mass sections with pieces of different kinds. The Gloria is followed by the motet Tristitia et anxietas, included in the Cantiones Sacrae of 1589; the text is an adaptation of a verse from the Lamentations of Jeremiah (ch 5, vs 17). It sets the tone for the programme as a whole, which is dominated by restrained, and often even pretty gloomy pieces. That even goes for the Ave Maria, which follows the Credo of the mass. It is an antiphon for the Blessed Virgin Mary, and used as the Offertory at mass for the Annunciation to the Virgin. The text does not suggest any restraint, but even the closing Alleluia is by far not as jubilant as one may expect. The Sanctus & Benedictus are followed by Circumdederunt me, a setting of two verses from Psalm 114, opening with the words: "The sorrows of death have surrounded me". It is included in the second volume of Cantiones Sacrae (1591), and scored for five voices. Harmony is effectively used here for the expression of the text.

The remaining works fit into the general mood of the programme. Emendemus in melius is a Matins Responsory on Ash Wednesday; it is taken from the Byrd/Tallis edition of 1575: "Let us make amends for the sins we have committed in ignorance". Notable is the repetition of the closing phrase "libera nos" (free us), which is a way to emphasize the urgency of this prayer. The motet is performed here in a downward transposition of a major third.

The programme ends with Byrd's Lamentations, which may date from the 1560s, which makes it one of his earliest pieces. It has not been published, and part of the work is missing. For this recording the missing passages from the tenor part (the opening statement, 'Teth' and 'Jod') have been reconstructed by Owain Park. I can't remember ever having heard this work; the track-list doesn't say that it is recorded here for the first time, but that may well be the case. Anyway, it is a beautiful work, and it would be nice if this reconstruction would become available in a printed edition; many vocal ensembles will be happy to add this piece to their repertoire for Lent and Passiontide.

The Gesualdo Six is was founded in 2014, but I have not heard them often, probably because they like to mix early and modern music. This is the first time I have listened to them for reviewing reasons, and I am impressed by what they have to offer. These six voices produce a beautiful sound, and they have paid much attention to the expressive features of these pieces. The liner-notes by Owain Park are helpful to discover how Byrd connects text and music. Despite being recorded in an apparently not very small church, the performances have much of the intimacy which I think the late Latin pieces require. Although not specifically intended for Lent and Passiontide, much of the programme fits the character of that period, but this disc can be enjoyed any time of the year.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Stile Antico
The Gesualdo Six

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