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Hyperion Records

CDA67533 - Byrd: The Great Service & other works

Recording details: February 2005
Westminster Abbey, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Summerly
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: November 2005
Total duration: 76 minutes 11 seconds

CD OF THE WEEK - The Sunday Times

'A very polished and confident performance. Quinney gives equally fluent renditions of the Voluntary and 'Fancie for My Lady Nevell', completing a disc that fulfils its brief with distinction' (Gramophone)

'The Choir of Westminster Abbey revels in the score's complexity, animating the dialogues within its ten-part texture with clarity and conviction … this disc shows us clearly why the Great Service ranks as Byrd's definitive Anglican music' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Byrd's Great Service was not discovered until the 1920s, and is one of his most magnificent creations, awesome in scale and hugely demanding, with its intricate and complex 10-part polyphony … For those wanting larger forces and boys' voices in the treble parts, this is a mightily impressive option. The abbey's 'authentic' cathedral acoustic is a bonus, lending even more grandeur' (The Sunday Times)

'This is a fine start of a new series' (Fanfare, USA)

'This is one of Britain's best liturgical choirs…' (Early Music)

The Great Service & other works
Venite  [5'02] English
Te Deum  [8'34] English
Benedictus  [8'40] English
Kyrie  [1'01] English
Creed  [5'45] English
Magnificat  [9'25] English

It is not known when or for whom William Byrd wrote his monumental ‘Great Service’, but we can be sure that he would approve of this new recording from Westminster Abbey.

The second half of the sixteenth century was a heady time for the post-Reformation Church of England. Out of the ashes of the Catholic tradition a new—and decidedly Anglican—musical enthusiasm arose, and with it three distinct styles for settings of the Canticles, so central to Cranmer’s vision for the liturgy: ‘short’ services presented their texts efficiently and simply, while ‘verse’ services complicated proceedings with the addition of soloists and more intricate textures; ‘great’, or ‘full’, services extended this development to create musical structures of astonishing diversity, and at the very peak of the genre comes William Byrd’s masterpiece, widely regarded as the finest unaccompanied setting of the service ever made.

The ‘Great’ Service is here presented in its correct liturgical order (with the inclusion of the frequently omitted Kyrie) and is complemented by six of Byrd’s finest anthems and two organ voluntaries from My Lady Nevells Booke, a collection of Byrd’s keyboard music put together in 1591.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The two Books of Common Prayer published in 1549 and 1552 for the reformed church of Edward VI were the work of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1533 to 1556. These books constituted a massive reorganization and standardization of the English liturgies, including the recitation of the Office and the celebration of Communion as well as the services for baptism, matrimony and burial, and as such they were the most visible signs that the Reformation in England had entered a new and more Protestant phase.

The pre-Reformation Office with its daily round of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline was reduced to just two services, Matins and Evensong. Their focus remained the same, namely the recitation of the psalms and the reading of Holy Scripture, but a new lectionary was put in place for this purpose. The whole Psalter would now be read over the course of one month and the Bible read throughout the course of one year. To help achieve this, Cranmer considerably increased the length of the readings at the new services and doubled their number from one to two. He also used a canticle to follow each reading – the Te Deum laudamus and Benedictus (from Matins and Lauds respectively) in the morning and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (from Vespers and Compline) in the evening. The reformers were also keen to dispense with anything they considered extraneous or unnecessary. So the antiphons and responsories which commented on the psalms and scriptures in the Catholic rite were removed and there is a constant exhortation that the vernacular be used at all times.

Matins and Evensong essentially have the same format, opening with responses which lead directly to the psalmody (except in Matins when the Venite intervenes) before the first lesson to be read ‘distinctly with a loud voice, that the people may hear’. Then follows the first canticle, the second lesson, the second canticle, the recitation of the Creed, more responses and finally three prayers or collects.

In the 1549 Prayer Book reference is made to the singing of music by the choir, or ‘Clerks’ as they are termed. By 1552, virtually every mention of music has been removed and this second book which leans more towards the radical reformers’ agenda may also represent Cranmer’s own view. Certainly in relation to music he had no desire for anything elaborate or time consuming: ‘In my opinion, the song that shall be made thereunto would not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, for every syllable a note.’ Composers reacted accordingly, most obviously John Merbecke who published his Book of Common Prayer Noted – an adaptation of the old Catholic plainsong melodies into English with one note used for each syllable – in 1550.

The Edwardian reforms were thrown into disarray by the boy-King’s death in 1553 and the accession of the fiercely Catholic Mary Tudor. Wedded to the old ways, she reunited with Rome and re-established the Catholic liturgies in a brief interlude before the accession of her sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth had her own tastes and priorities, certainly different from Mary but also different from her brother, Edward. His 1552 Prayer Book was reinstated but Elizabeth liked and encouraged the performance of music and so began a glorious period of anthem and canticle composition in the second half of the sixteenth century. Three main styles of canticle setting developed, of which the most popular initially was the ‘short’ service. Derived from Cranmer’s musical ideas, the choir would sometimes sing alternatim (from side to side) and always in homophony (each part singing the same words, essentially to the same rhythms at the same time). Of the other two genres, one involved the use of soloists or ‘verse’ singers, hence the description ‘verse’ service, and the other was more elaborate and large-scale, often involving many soloists, grand gestures and with much imitation of the musical ideas. These settings became known as the ‘full’ or ‘great’ services.

William Byrd (c1539/40–1623), although a convinced Catholic for the duration of his long life, contributed settings to all three of these genres. We know nothing for certain of his early life but John Harley’s discovery of a Star Chamber document has allowed the accepted year of Byrd’s birth to be redefined. In the document there is a deposition from Byrd dated 1598, in which he states his age as ‘58 years or there abouts’ and this certainly rules out the original suggestion of 1543 for his year of birth. Yet remembering that people could be notoriously inaccurate about their age and that Byrd uses the phrase ‘there abouts’, is there scope for an even earlier birth year? There is one tantalizing theory.

There exists in manuscript a joint composition by the young Byrd, the slightly older William Mundy and the elderly John Sheppard. Sheppard died in 1558 and therefore this piece, In exitu Israel, must have been written before that time. Byrd would have been too young to write during Henry VIII’s reign and such a piece could not have been countenanced during the time of Edward VI, so it must date from the Catholic reign of Queen Mary. The writing of the two young composers shows excellent technique and one must therefore assume that they both received a good musical education. Sheppard was resident in London at this time and William Mundy had been head chorister at Westminster Abbey in the early 1540s. All of which begs the question, where did Byrd receive his training?

There is a boy found at the bottom of the list Westminster Abbey choristers called ‘Wyllyam Byrd’ who receives payment in 1541/2. By 24 June 1543 he is ranked third from the top of this list, yet by the end of the following term he is no longer listed at all. Is it possible that this is the composer, William Byrd? His rapid elevation through the ranks of choristers could suggest that he was talented, and it could be that this bright young lad was poached by the Chapel Royal Choir (a common occurrence) where he could have met Sheppard and Thomas Tallis. This would imply that Byrd was born circa 1535. Unfortunately the Chapel Royal records for this period are no longer extant and it is impossible to be sure. Furthermore, Byrd is not an unusual name in the sixteenth century and it could be that this young chorister’s disappearance from the Abbey lists was due to infant mortality.

Using Harley’s suggested birth date of around 1540, Byrd would have experienced the liturgical changes in the Books of Common Prayer as a boy and the Marian reaction as a teenager. His first appointment seems to have been as organist of Lincoln Cathedral in 1563 but with the untimely death of Robert Parsons in 1572, Byrd was elevated to fill the vacancy in the Chapel Royal and so returned to London. Byrd wrote and published prolifically for an English composer with five collections of motets – the Cantiones Sacrae of 1575, 1589 and 1591 and the Gradualia of 1605 and 1607 – as well as three settings of the Mass and three volumes of domestic music in 1588, 1589 and 1611. For the Anglican Church he produced responses, psalms, anthems, two settings of the Evensong canticles (the ‘Second’ and ‘Third’ Services) and two complete settings of all the music for both Matins and Evensong, one a ‘short’ service and the other the monumental ‘Great’ Service. Not a note of this English music was published during the composer’s lifetime.

The Great Service (Venite, Te Deum, Benedictus, Kyrie, Creed, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis) was virtually unknown until its rediscovery by Edmund Fellowes in the manuscripts of Durham Cathedral in 1922. The earliest source for what Fellowes described as the ‘finest unaccompanied setting of the service in the entire repertory of English church music’ is in the hand of John Baldwin and dates from around 1606 which makes assigning a date of composition very difficult. It used to be thought that most of Byrd’s music for the English church was written during his time as organist of Lincoln Cathedral but this is too simplistic an assumption. The Great Service certainly sits firmly within the Elizabethan tradition of composition as established by Sheppard (especially in his Second Service to which Byrd makes reference), Parsons and Mundy. Yet the imitative style, the technical complexity and the way in which Byrd uses the various vocal scorings available to him (especially the divided treble voices) suggests that this piece belongs not to the Lincoln years but to some time later, perhaps the 1580s. For many choirs the sheer scope of this music and the lavish scoring for ten parts (SSAAAA TTBB) must have made it impossible to perform: few could have boasted sufficient numbers of singers for such an undertaking. There is perhaps only one Elizabethan institution which could have dealt with such a piece and that was the Chapel Royal; it may be that Byrd wrote it specifically for them.

Of the many sophisticated features of the Great Service, juxtaposition is one of the most important – verse singers set against full choir, higher voices against lower voices, homophony against imitation – all of which allows Byrd to have a tight control of the drama of the text. At the same time he revels in the full sonority of the ten-part scoring and fuses elements from all three service styles. The two sides of the choir (Decani and Cantoris) are pitted against each other in the manner of the ‘short’ services but not simply to provide variety but more often for dramatic effect. In the Te Deum Decani represents the ‘glorious company of the Apostles’ and Cantoris the ‘noble army of Martyrs’ and then both unite at the mention of the ‘holy Church throughout all the world’. Such full choir statements are always offset by more intimate sections for verses where Byrd will exploit the full range and colour of the voices, using three altos and a tenor in the Benedictus at the words ‘And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest’ and scattering the proud in the Magnificat not only ‘in the imagination of their hearts’ but audibly in the music.

Byrd wrote no anthems in the simple four-voice style which flourished during the reign of Edward VI. Consequently there is a degree of complexity to his settings when compared with his contemporaries, not least because there are never fewer than five voice parts. Essentially he adopts a serene, coolly beautiful style of writing which can be rather austere, as in the penitential psalms Out of the deep and How long shall mine enemies? But can also be emotional in a rather restrained way, as in Prevent us, O Lord and especially O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth. In both these pieces the placing of a homophonic section followed by more imitative writing culminates in a gorgeous wash of harmonic colour at the cadences. This colour is often the result of the sharpened leading note in one voice part being sounded at the same time as the flattened leading note in another, producing an effect now regarded as quintessentially English.

Rather different in style is the vigorous setting of Sing joyfully. Here Byrd is much concerned with madrigalian effects and witty word setting, including the depiction of the bow strokes of the viol and the fanfares of the trumpets being blown ‘in the new moon’. These devices suggest a later date of composition than the other anthems in this collection and the choice of text, with its reiteration of the ‘law of the God of Jacob’ in the final bars, could be a subtle tribute to James I who came to the throne in 1603.

Christ rising again from the dead is the sole example of a verse anthem on this disc. The piece sets two treble soloists against full choir throughout and is full of imaginative gestures, such as the rising figure for Christ’s ‘rising’, the change in harmonies at the mention of Christ’s death, the energized rhythmic figure at the mention of Christ being alive and the dancing figure when ‘all men shall be restored to life’.

This disc is completed by two pieces from My Lady Nevells Booke, a manuscript of Byrd’s keyboard music compiled by John Baldwin and completed by him in September 1591: the Lady Nevell has not yet been identified. Unconstrained by text of any sort, these pieces allow Byrd’s inventive imagination full rein. The Fancy for my Lady Nevell has its roots in motet-style imitation but is transformed by Byrd with its complex, idiomatic instrumental writing. The Voluntary for my Lady Nevell starts with a sombre eight-bar introduction before a second section which becomes lighter as it develops, complete with sprung rhythms and textural variety.

Andrew Carwood © 2005

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