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Hyperion Records

CDA67675 - Byrd: Assumpta est Maria & other sacred music
The Death of the Virgin (Ms Fr 71 fol.11) by Jean Fouquet (c1420-1480)
Musée Condé, Chantilly, France / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67675

Recording details: Various dates
Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, United Kingdom
Produced by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Engineered by Martin Haskell & Iestyn Rees
Release date: September 2009
Total duration: 69 minutes 21 seconds

'Some of the three-part hymns are masterly in their technical assurance, setting the voices free to wander and with the lightness of touch recalling them to the fold for a cadence … exquisitely wrought … to the singers and their director is due an additional hymn of praise' (Gramophone)

'Some of Byrd's best writing, with complex imitation enlived by madrigal-style word settings. The Cardinall's Musick seize on the subtleties and expressiveness of these settings … the inventiveness and depth of this recording outweigh its rare longeurs' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Sublime music, then, an inspired and inspiring director and a series that Hyperion rescued from another label and has persevered with against all odds' (International Record Review)

'The Cardinall's Musick under Andrew Carwood show the deep feeling as well as the dignity of these illicit and originally secret settings' (The Independent on Sunday)

'The Cardinall's Musick continues its odyssey through Byrd's vocal output … the singing here is clean and balanced, with no attempt to make women's voices resemble those of boys' (The Sunday Times)

'Carwood has given us a series of Byrd recordings that will be a monument when he has finished, and this is a worthy part of the series… don’t wait to add this to our collection' (Fanfare, USA)

Assumpta est Maria & other sacred music
Propers for the Nativity of the Virgin
Propers for the Annunciation to the Virgin
Propers for the Assumption of the Virgin

In this latest volume from The Cardinall’s Musick acclaimed Byrd series, the composer’s overtly Catholic agenda is clearly displayed. In an age when censorship was rife and spies were everywhere, it is not surprising that possession of the first volume of Gradualia should have been cited as one of the reasons for the arrest of a Jesuit priest called de Noiriche (although obviously the spies had other more compelling evidence to hand). Only one set of the 1605 partbooks remains intact, although they have had their introductory material removed and perhaps these volumes were considered too dangerous to own. This fear, whether real or perceived, was not enough to dissuade Byrd and his publisher from producing a second book of Gradualia in 1607, or from re-printing both volumes in 1610.

All of the music on this disc is drawn from the first volume of Gradualia published in 1605. The music is a world away from the dark broodings of the Cantiones Sacrae from 1589 and 1591 where Byrd is preoccupied with the melancholy which dominates his middle years. In the later publications Byrd achieves a fusion of styles, mixing the energy, word-painting and rhythmic vitality of the secular madrigal tradition with the spirituality and liturgical context of words from the Mass and Divine Office. The witty use of short bursts of melody often thrown from one voice to another, together with the energized rhythmic cells, suggests a man who is not obsessed with a hopeless cause. It may be that in the Essex countryside, surrounded by sympathetic folk, Byrd had found a real home away from the political maelstrom which raged in London. These pieces show a glimpse of the man which is rather different to our more usual perception of the composer racked with misery at the deprivation of Catholics in England. Here we see a man in the later stages of life, affected by the aftermath of the Reformation (as his earlier publications clearly show), yet who is now sufficiently relaxed and secure to be able to indulge his considerable wit and imagination, and who is confident enough to use the most up-to-date musical styles. Here there is no wringing of hands, nor downcast eyes but rather the musical embodiment of an unshakeable faith.


Other recommended albums
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The two volumes entitled Gradualia, published in 1605 and 1607, are retrospective collections. Most of the music seems to date from during and after the 1590s when Byrd was resident in Essex at Stondon Massey as part of the extended Catholic community of Sir John Petre based around Ingatestone Hall. Many of the pieces are settings of texts which could well have been used during the clandestine celebrations of Mass and as such could be considered dangerous and subversive. Yet, for the purposes of publication these relatively short, Latin-texted pieces could easily be presented as spiritual entertainment for the home, innocent pieces, to be sung after supper perhaps, allowing one to exercise vocal, instrumental and linguistic skills. This is certainly how a Protestant household would have perceived them. It is remarkable therefore that Byrd seemed determined to sail close to the wind when he described exactly the nature of the music and how it should be used:

The Offices for the whole year which are appropriate to the principal Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of All Saints are set out for your use, together with some other songs for five voices with their words drawn from the fount of sacred writings. Here too is the Office for the Feast Day of Corpus Christi, together with the more solemn Antiphons of the same Blessed Virgin and other similar songs for four voices, and also all the hymns composed in praise of the Virgin. Finally, here are settings for three voices of various songs sung at the feast of Easter. Moreover, so that they may be placed in the correct position in the various parts of the Office, I have added a special index at the end of the book in which all the songs appropriate to the same Feasts will easily be found listed together, even though they may differ in the number of voices. (From the preface ‘To the True Lovers of Music’, Gradualia, 1605)

This is an overtly Catholic agenda and, in an age when censorship was rife and spies were everywhere, it is not surprising that possession of the first volume of Gradualia should have been cited as one of the reasons for the arrest of a Jesuit priest called de Noiriche (although obviously the spies had other more compelling evidence to hand). Only one set of the 1605 partbooks remains intact (now in York Minster Library and mentioned in William Byrd, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by John Harley, Scolar Press, 1999), although they have had their introductory material removed and perhaps these volumes were considered too dangerous to own. This fear, whether real or perceived, was not enough to dissuade Byrd and his publisher from producing a second book of Gradualia in 1607, or from re-printing both volumes in 1610.

William Byrd’s early years are shrouded in mystery. It seems likely that he was from the London area but unlikely that he was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral (Edward Rimbault, inA Mass for five voices … preceded by a life of the composer. London Musical Antiquarian Society, 1 (1841), repeated various claims from Maria Hackett, the nineteenth-century reformer, concerning William Byrd and his early life, including that he was senior chorister at St Paul’s. There is no evidence for this. Byrd’s brothers—Symond and John—are listed as choristers but there is no mention of a William Byrd in the chorister lists). In any case, by the time the young Byrd was appointed organist of Lincoln Cathedral in 1563, he had undergone a rigorous musical training, had made the acquaintance of two of the most prominent mid-Tudor composers (John Sheppard and Thomas Tallis) and had been attached to the Chapel Royal in some capacity or other. Byrd’s faith shines out in his publications of 1575, 1589 and 1591, all in Latin, all published after his return to London, and all seemingly addressed to the dispossessed Catholic community in England. From the early 1590s Byrd moved away from London and into the orbit of the Petre family in Essex where he remained until his death in 1623.

All of the music on this disc is drawn from the first volume of Gradualia published in 1605 and dedicated to Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton. The music is a world away from the dark broodings of the Cantiones Sacrae from 1589 and 1591 where Byrd is preoccupied with the melancholy which dominates his middle years. In the later publications Byrd achieves a fusion of styles, mixing the energy, word-painting and rhythmic vitality of the secular madrigal tradition with the spirituality and liturgical context of words from the Mass and Divine Office. The witty use of short bursts of melody often thrown from one voice to another, together with the energized rhythmic cells, suggests a man who is not obsessed with a hopeless cause. It may be that in the Essex countryside, surrounded by sympathetic folk, Byrd had found a real home away from the political maelstrom which raged in London.

Byrd provides settings of the Propers at Mass, that is, those texts (Introit, Gradual, Tract or Alleluia, Offertory and Communion) which change from day to day according to the Feast being celebrated. He also provides some Antiphons (usually to accompany a central Canticle) and Hymns for Divine Office and some miscellanea which are spiritual in nature but which do not have a formal liturgical role. This disc features three sets of Mass Propers which celebrate salient moments in the life of the Virgin Mary—her Nativity (8 September), the Annunciation (25 March, nine months before Christmas) and the Assumption (15 August).

The Introits start with a strong sense of purpose befitting pieces which set the tone for the Mass and act as an overture to the action that will follow. Salve sancta parens has a vigorous upward melody and a quizzical alternation of B flat and B natural almost as if trying to represent the heavens (‘caelum’) with a sharpened note and the earth (‘terramque’) with a flat. The beautiful Gradual Benedicta et venerabilis cadences with a ravishing reminder of the text from the Creed (‘factus homo’) before stating the Alleluia which leads directly into the verse Felix es, sacra Virgo. In this recording, all Alleluias designed to be added during the season of Easter are included. This is not strictly correct according to liturgical rules, but it does allow for the complete performance of Byrd’s music as part of this recorded survey.

Vultum tuum is particularly notable for the explosion of joy at the words ‘in laetitia et exsultatione’ (‘in joy and exultation’). In spite of the fact that the Gradual and Tract are to be sung during Lent, Byrd takes the opportunity to use a rare triple-time section to describe the daughter of the king being brought to the temple. It is as if she runs with great excitement to the temple door only to smooth her dress and re-compose herself before entering the sacred space with a more sombre duple measure.

Byrd produces a vigorous setting for the Assumption Introit, fresh sounding and vibrant with a concentration on the joy displayed at Mary’s arrival in heaven. Once again, Byrd uses triple time to conclude his setting of the Gradual and Alleluia, this time to reiterate the final words of the verse (a rare occurrence) after which he resolutely remains in three until the very end of the movement. The Offertory verse Assumpta est Maria is most remarkable for its final Alleluia which must classed as one of the most imaginative settings of this word ever produced, whilst the Communion Optimam partem elegit is exquisite in every detail.

Completing this disc are the four Hymns from the Little Office of the Virgin presented in the order that they would be sung throughout the liturgical day—Quem terra, pontus, aethera (at Matins); O gloriosa Domina (at Lauds); Memento, salutis auctor (at the Lesser Hours); and Ave maris stella (at Vespers). The Little Office of the Virgin was a popular devotion from about the tenth century onwards. Like Divine Office, it is a collection of Psalms and Antiphons, readings and prayers, organized into seven services a day, the difference being that every text is in honour of the Virgin Mary. Although it was suppressed by Pius V in 1568 it remained popular, having been disseminated through many primers, or books of devotion, used by the laity. All four Hymns are scored for three voices and are therefore quite intimate examples of chamber music. Three of them are relatively simple in style: one, Ave maris stella, is a veritable tour de force. Byrd sets all seven verses of the Hymn using intricate melodies and complicated points of imitation. Furthermore, the fifth verse (‘Virgo singularis’) pushes the boundaries of the vocal ranges to the absolute limit.

The Salve regina is a setting of one of the most popular texts in honour of the Virgin. Byrd had already produced a more extended setting (published in 1591) but this later composition is more succinct and chamber-like. It contains some typical traits, like the downward semitones for ‘gementes et flentes’ (‘groaning and weeping’), but is on a much smaller canvas than the earlier version. Conversely Salve sola Dei genetrix is a very unusual text. Scored for three high voices with a low voice, it is a setting of an anonymous paraphrase of the Ave Maria text which is heavily influenced by madrigalian gestures and ideas, most notably at the words ‘nunc, et in extrema’ and ‘o ne morte relinquas’ where the use of rhetoric and harmony sounds closer to early Monteverdi than to Byrd himself.

This disc is the third in the series of Byrd’s Latin Church music which has been devoted exclusively to Gradualia items. These pieces show a glimpse of the man which is rather different to our more usual perception of the composer racked with misery at the deprivation of Catholics in England. Here we see a man in the later stages of life, affected by the aftermath of the Reformation (as his earlier publications clearly show), yet who is now sufficiently relaxed and secure to be able to indulge his considerable wit and imagination, and who is confident enough to use the most up-to-date musical styles. Here there is no wringing of hands, nor downcast eyes but rather the musical embodiment of an unshakeable faith.

Andrew Carwood © 2009


Other albums in this series
'Byrd: Laudibus in sanctis & other sacred music' (CDA67568)
Byrd: Laudibus in sanctis & other sacred music
'Byrd: Hodie Simon Petrus & other sacred music' (CDA67653)
Byrd: Hodie Simon Petrus & other sacred music
MP3 £4.00FLAC £4.00ALAC £4.00Buy by post £10.50 CDA67653  Download currently discounted
'Byrd: Infelix ego & other sacred music' (CDA67779)
Byrd: Infelix ego & other sacred music
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 44.1 kHz £7.85ALAC 24-bit 44.1 kHz £7.85 CDA67779  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Byrd: The Great Service & other English music' (CDA67937)
Byrd: The Great Service & other English music
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 44.1 kHz £7.85ALAC 24-bit 44.1 kHz £7.85 CDA67937  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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