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William BYRD (c1540 - 1623): Sacred music

[I] "Motets"
The Choir of King's College, Cambridge
Dir: Stephen Cleobury

rec: Jan 12 - 13, April 24 - 25 & June 23, 2017, Cambridge, Chapel of King's College
King's College Recordings - KGS0024 (© 2018) (56'12")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance]
[Advent] Rorate coeli desuper a 5 [4]; Vigilate a 5 [2]; [Candlemas] Hodie beata Virgo Maria a 4 [4]; Alleluia. Senex puerum portabat a 4 [4]; [Lent] Ne irascaris, Domine - (2p) Civitas sancti tui a 5 [2]; [Easter] Terra tremuit a 5 [5]; Haec dies a 6 [3]; [Ascension] Tollite portas a 5 [4]; Alleluia. Ascendit Deus a 5 [5]; [Whitsun] Factus est repente a 5 [5]; Non vos relinquam orphanos a 5 [5]; [Trinity] O lux beata Trinitas a 6 [1]; Laudibus in sanctis a 5 [3]; [Corpus Christi] Ave verum corpus a 4 [4]; Sacerdotes Domini a 4 [4]; [All Saints] Iustorum animae a 5 [4]; O quam gloriosum a 5 [2]; [Blessed Virgin Mary] Ave Maria a 5 [4]

[II] "Singing in secret - Clandestine Catholic music by William Byrd"
The Marian Consort
Dir: Rory McCleery
rec: August 5 - 7, 2019, Crichton (Midlothian, UK), Crichton Collegiate Church
Delphian Records - DCD34320 (© 2020) (60'14")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ave Maria a 5 [4]; Beati mundo corde a 5 [4]; Deo gratias a 4 [4]; Gaudeamus omnes a 5 [4]; Infelix ego a 6 [3]; Iustorum animae a 5 [4]; Laetentur caeli a 5 [2]; Miserere mei a 5 [3]; Missa 4 vocum; Timete Dominum a 5 [4]

Charlotte Ashley, Lucinda Cox, soprano; Helen Charlston, Hannah Cooke, contralto; Rory McCleery, alto; Edward Ross, Ashley Turnell, tenor; Michael Craddock, Edmund Saddington, bass

[III] "The Great Service & Anthems"
Odyssean Ensemble; Christian Wilson, organ (soloa)
Dir: Colm Carey
rec: Jan 6 - 8, 2018, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead
Linn Records - CKD608 (© 2019) (59'25")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Exalt thyself, O God a 6; Fantasia No. 2 in G (BK 62)a O God, the proud are risen against me a 6; Sing joyfully a 6; The Great Service a 10

ZoŽ Brookshaw, Angela Hicks, Emilia Morton, Amy Wood, soprano; Kate Symonds-Joy, contralto; Daniel Collins, David Gould, Simon Ponsford, alto; Steven Harrold, Hugo Hymas, tenor; William Gaunt, James Holliday, bass

Sources: [1] Thomas Tallis/William Byrd, Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, 1575; William Byrd, [2] Liber primus sacrarum cantionum, 1589; [3] Liber secundus sacrarum cantionum, 1591; [4] Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae, 1605; [5] Gradualia seu cantionum sacrarum, liber secundus, 1607


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, 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.

Considering that for most of his life Byrd was active as a Catholic composer under the strict Protestant rule of Elizabeth, it may surprise that he not only left a large amount of music in Latin, clearly intended for the Catholic liturgy, but also that a large part of it was printed. The first of the printed editions was the collection of 34 motets, which was published in 1575, called in short Cantiones Sacrae. Both Byrd and his teacher, Thomas Tallis, contributed seventeen motets to the edition, which was the fruit of a royal patent which gave "full privilege and license unto our well-beloved servants Thomas Tallis and William Byrd". One may wonder why this privilege was given. Tallis's religious affiliation may have been not quite clear, and he was generally considered an icon of sacred music in England, but there was no doubt about Byrd's sympathies. It may well be explained from the fact that Elizabeth, a great lover of music anyway, seems to have appreciated Byrd's music. A further reason may have been his position as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.

However, there is no doubt that his Latin church music could not be performed in public services. Under Elizabeth, Catholic mass was forbidden, and worship had to take place in secret, in particular in the estates of the Catholic nobility on the countryside. If modern performers want to come close to how Byrd's Latin church music was performed in his own days, the number of singers should be reduced, and one should probably also take into account the different acoustical circumstances of the venues where his motets and masses were performed. It seems that only a few interpreters are willing to take the consequences of a strictly historical approach.

The disc of motets, recorded by the Choir of King's College Cambridge, comes with a booklet, in whose liner-notes Iain Fenlon discusses at length the historical circumstances, under which Byrd composed his Latin church music, but that has no audible effect on the way the selection of motets is performed. The choir comprises a little over thirty singers, from treble to bass, and the recording took place in an empty chapel of King's College, where the acoustical circumstances are very different from the much smaller chapels of aristocratic estates in Byrd's time. Basically, what we get here is a sequence of motets as they are part of everyday liturgical practice in King's College, where motets - in contrast to the time of Byrd - are included in services of the Church of England. This is reflected by the way the motets are ordered. We get two motets for the different stages of the ecclesiastical year, from Advent to All Saints. The sequence ends with Ave Maria, the offertory of the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary during Advent, bringing us back to where we started.

Byrd's motets are exponents of the stile antico, but it seems that he was aware of what was written at the time by madrigal composers in Italy. Several motets include madrigalisms and other marked specimens of text illustration. In Vigilate, the words "an galli cantu" (at cock crow) are a clear example. Byrd also makes a marked contrast between "venerit repente" (coming suddenly) and "dormientes" (sleeping), thus creating a kind of dramatic element in this motet, which urges the faithful to "keep watch, for ye know not when the master of the house cometh". In Terra tremuit, a motet for Easter, Byrd does not miss the opportunity to illustrate the trembling of the earth, and he lets the voices imitate the sound of trumpets in Alleluia. Ascendit Deus, a motet for Ascension Day. Psalm 150, Laudibus in sanctis, and the two motets for Lent are strongly contrasted in the way Byrd has translated the text into his music.

From a strictly historical angle, these performances may not be 'authentic', but the singing is - as we may expect from this choir - superb. And the line-up of only male voices certainly is 'authentic', as this was the rule at the time. However, there were exceptions, and that brings us to the next disc.

Rory McCleery, in the liner-notes to his disc "Singing in secret" mentions that there is documentation of clandestine masses being "celebrated with singing, and musicall instruments". He refers to one specific event of this kind in a remote place at the estate of some nobleman. "The gentleman was also a skilled musician, and had an organ and other musical instruments and choristers, male and female, members of his household. During these days it was just as if we were celebrating an uninterrupted Octave of some great feast. Mr Byrd, the very famous English musician and organist, was among the company..." Obviously, this is most interesting with regard to performance practice. It seems to suggest that in such private gatherings one of the basic rules of the church - that women should be silent in church - was not always observed. Whereas instruments seem to have played virtually no role in the liturgy before the Reformation, they may have been used in private worship. However, we need to be cautious to draw too strong conclusions from these facts. First, the mentioned household did include female singers, but that in itself is no evidence that they participated in the performance of liturgical music. Second, it is mentioned that instruments were available, but that does not necessarily mean that they were actually used in the liturgy. McCleery, in his recording, observes the rather small number of singers that may have been involved in clandestine masses, but did not decide to use instruments. Moreover, it is impossible to decide which instruments may have been used. Recently, I reviewed a disc by the Capella de la Torre, in which music by Byrd was performed with loud wind instruments. The information given in the liner-notes does not make me change my mind that this is historically very implausible. If instruments were used, these were likely a small organ and viols. The latter were common at the time, and also used in services in the Church of England, for instance the Chapel Royal.

As the title of this disc indicates, the programme focuses on music connected to private Catholic worship. There can be little doubt that this goes for the three masses Byrd composed. These were published without title page, date or name of the printer, for safety reasons. The Missa 4 vocum is the core of the programme, and is the most obvious token of Byrd's Catholic faith. However, the other pieces have also been selected to document this. No fewer than four items are connected to All Saints, which had a special meaning for Catholics at the time, "not least because of their rather immediate relationship with martyrdom and also the precarious nature and small size of their community." This brings us to an interesting aspect of Byrd's oeuvre. It has been suggested that the fact that he set many texts of a rather sombre nature was inspired by the trials and tribulations of Catholics at the time. That can certainly not be excluded, but we should not ignore that many of these texts were part of the liturgy and were also set by other composers in England and at the continent. The main exception, and probably the most personal piece in the programme, may be Infelix ego, a setting of a meditation on Psalm 50 (51), Miserere mei Deus, by the Florentine preacher Girolamo Savonarola, who was executed in 1498. This text was set by other composers as well, such as Willaert and Lassus, but was not part of the liturgy and Byrd may have felt that this text expressed his own feelings or that of the Catholic community.

The programme has been put together in such a way that one gets the idea of a Mass, as the parts of the mass ordinary are separated by motets, but in no way this is a liturgical reconstruction. Psalm 50 (51), which is a crucial text in the Catholic liturgy - as it is one of the seven penitential psalms sung during Lent - and may also symbolize the feelings of Catholics in Byrd's time, embraces the programme: its opening is Byrd's setting of the first verse of this psalm and Infelix ego brings it to a close. The result is a captivating journey through Byrd's Latin church music from a historical perspective, as it sheds light on the precarious position of Catholics in Elizabethan England. The Marian Consort consists of nine singers, performing in different combinations. It delivers fine performances, in which those moments in which Byrd illustrates the text - showing the influence of contemporary Italian madrigals - come off perfectly. It is regrettable that some singers, in particular in the upper regions, allow themselves a bit of vibrato. That is not desirable, but it does not really spoil my appreciation of this recording.

In 1572 Byrd was sworn in as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He also acted as organist, a position he shared with Tallis. During his time in the Chapel Royal, he contributed to the music needed for the liturgy. On the one hand, these were settings of liturgical texts from the Book of Common Prayer. These were not any different from what was used in the Catholic Liturgy; the titles were still in Latin: Magnificat, Nunc dimittis, Benedictus, Te Deum. However, the text was in the vernacular, and this required a different way of composing. Moreover, composers of English church music had to obey to the rules laid down by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (1489-1556), who emphasized the importance of the intelligibility of the text. This prevented them from constructing a dense polyphonic fabric, as was common practice in Catholic church music. This explains why much of the repertoire is dominated by homophony. Two other features need to be mentioned. First, composers had to start from nothing, as there was no plainchant they could use as the starting point of their compositions. Second, the choir was divided into two oppositional groups, known as decani and cantoris respectively. These features manifest themselves in the Great Service, which comprises settings of six texts: Venite (O come, let us sing unto the Lord - Psalm 95), Te Deum, Benedictus (the Song of Zechariah), the Creed (Credo), Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. Most lines of these texts are split into two halves, sung by the decani and the cantoris respectively, whereas on some lines they are joined. The voices are supported by the organ.

It seems likely that the Great Service was performed with organ accompaniment. There is no single source of this work; the various vocal parts have been preserved in different sources, and some come with an organ part. In the recording by the Odyssean Ensemble, this part has been treated differently from previous recordings, as Andrew Johnstone explains in the booklet. The organ books of pre-Restoration church music include only the outer voices of passages for full chorus, and this has enticed performers to fill in the 'missing parts' by doubling all or some of the middle voices. On the basis of recent research, organist Christian Wilson here rather doubles the vocal bass part at the octave below. He plays the reconstruction of an organ from the Tudor period.

Composers of music for the Anglican liturgy did not need to confine themselves to texts from the Book of Common Prayer. In 1559, Elizabeth ordered that composers were free to perform pieces on non-liturgical texts of their own choice. These were mostly taken from the Bible, and especially from the Book of Psalms. In the course of time, two kinds of anthem developed: the full anthem - entirely written for choir - and the verse anthem, in which the text was divided between verses for choir and verses for solo voice(s). The anthems included here are of the first type. They include some passages with text illustration, for instance on the words "Blow the trumpet in the new moon" (Sing joyfully). The Magnificat is an example from the Great Service, in which parts of the text are effectively depicted in the music.

The Great Service is scored for ten voices. It is performed by the Odyssean Ensemble with one voice per part. That seems to be the conventional line-up in modern performances. During the Tudor period, the size of the chapel varied between thirty and forty singers. From that perspective one wonders whether a larger line-up would do more justice to the music written for the Chapel Royal. The advantage of a smaller number of singers is that the text is more clearly intelligible. That is also the case here, although it could have been even better, if all the singers would have avoided all vibrato. That is not the case, I'm afraid, even though it is not really disturbing; it does compromise the impact of these performances. Christian Wilson delivers an outstanding performance of the Fantasia on the organ, which produces a lovely sound.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Choir of King's College, Cambridge
Odyssean Ensemble
The Marian Consort
Christian Wilson

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