Creed I believe in one God [5'07]
Turn our captivity, O Lord [4'25]
‘Recordings by Cardinall’s Musick of William Byrd’s work have been a landmark worthy of one of England’s greatest masters’ (The Guardian)
The Cardinall’s Musick are acknowledged as the foremost performers of Byrd’s music. Under their director Andrew Carwood they have recorded the complete Latin church music, the final volume of which won the Gramophone Record of the Year. Now they turn to Byrd’s English church music, a genre which shows the composer treading a path between his own innate Catholicism and the requirements of the reformed Church of England. But far from sublimating Byrd’s genius this difficult situation gave rise to one of his most fertile periods.
The Great Service was described as ‘the finest unaccompanied setting of the Service in the entire repertory of English church music’ upon its discovery in 1922. Written for ten voices, it is gorgeously lavish and grand—very different to the simple, unmelismatic style demanded by the Anglican clerics. Byrd did not publish it in his lifetime.
Also recorded here are five beautiful English settings on sacred themes, but probably written for performance in the home. They are masterpieces in miniature: each work is so distinctive and demonstrates Byrd’s genius for word-painting, his typically Elizabethan wit and of course his imaginative handling of polyphony.
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The story of William Byrd’s devotion to Catholicism during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I is well known, so it is not surprising that he produced only a small amount of music for her reformed Church of England and that not one of these pieces was included in any of his publications. Byrd was Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral from 1563 until 1572 and it is assumed that most of his Anglican music dates from this period. On the whole the music is simple in style and short in length as was required by the authorities of the time, for although Elizabeth was fond of music not all clerics agreed with her. Byrd produced three Services with these requirements in mind: the Short (or First) Service, a syllabic setting of the canticles for both Mattins and Evensong; the Second Service, which sets just the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis and makes use of short sections for soloists as well as the full choir; and the Third Service, setting again just the canticles for Evensong and sounding rather like the Short Service but with an extra voice part.
The Great Service is a quantum leap from these modest works. It is longer, involves a considerable amount of vocal interplay and imitation (rather in the style of instrumental music), sets sections for the full choir against extended passages for reduced forces and has a grand, sweeping style. This is music on a broad canvas and belongs to a time when composers were beginning to feel more confident in bringing musical brilliance back into their church compositions, as their forebears had done in the period immediately before Henry VIII began his reforms of church and state. The Great Service is almost certainly, therefore, not a piece for Lincoln and probably dates from the latter years of the century. For many choirs the sheer scope of this music and the lavish scoring for ten parts (SAATBSAATB) would have made it impossible to perform, and few could have boasted sufficient numbers of singers for such an undertaking other than the Chapel Royal. But the important question to ask is why did Byrd bother to write such a sumptuous setting for a church with which he was out of sympathy and in a genre in which he seemed to have no real interest?
The 1580s were difficult years for England. They started with the execution of Edmund Campion in 1581: then followed at least two plots to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne of England—the Throckmorton Plot (1583) and the Babington Plot (1586). Indeed, until her execution in 1587, the very presence of the Scottish Queen provided a focal point for Catholics around the country and was a constant thorn in the side of Elizabeth I, her cousin. Pressure from abroad was also building with the steady traffic of Jesuit missionaries from the newly founded seminary at Douai, and 1588 saw the first attempt of King Philip II of Spain to bring Elizabeth’s regime to its knees with the Spanish Armada. It is not surprising therefore that successive Parliaments of the 1580s increased anti-Catholic legislation, including fines for non-attendance at Anglican services and more stringent censorship rules.
During this decade Byrd was resident in Harlington in Middlesex. References to his non-attendance at official church services are frequent from 1584 and he and his family were often called to give account of themselves and subjected to fines. More seriously, in 1583 the composer was investigated as a result of his association with Lord Thomas Paget who was involved with the Throckmorton Plot. Byrd was the subject of various restrictions including a period of house arrest. As if this were not enough, he also had to deal with the death of his friend and mentor Thomas Tallis in 1585.
In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, the 1580s were a very fertile artistic time for Byrd with the publication of two volumes of sacred music in 1589 and 1591, two volumes of music for the home in 1588 and 1589, the completion of a set of keyboard works in 1591 and some significant consort music. Perhaps this flourish of publishing was prompted by Tallis’ death. They had produced a volume together in 1575 which had been a financial disaster and nothing more was attempted until Byrd’s solo venture in 1588. It is also possible that Byrd wanted to order his affairs and publish a body of his work before moving away from the capital and into Essex. He had been spending an increasing amount of time in the company of the Petre family based at Ingatestone Hall, and subsequently moved to the neighbouring village of Stondon Massey in 1594.
It is also possible that this move away from London was a reaction to his brush with the law over the Throckmorton Plot, either an attempt to escape the public gaze or to undertake some sort of contrition. If this is the case, could it be that The Great Service was his farewell to his colleagues in the Chapel Royal, or even an apology of sorts, either to them or to Elizabeth I? The Service is the result of considerable labour and is his only significant foray into the Anglican world. The Great Service is so good, it seems extraordinary that Byrd did not publish it—perhaps its composition was too personal and too private for this to be possible.
The Great Service 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. In terms of its style and confidence it would seem likely that it belongs to the 1590s and this would fit with the idea that The Great Service was some kind of tribute after Byrd’s departure from London.
Byrd provides three movements specifically for Mattins (the Venite, the Te Deum and the Benedictus), two for Evensong (the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis) and two for the Communion Service (the Decalogue, or Kyrie, and the Creed). The music takes as its starting point canticles from the previous generation and Byrd must have been aware of John Sheppard’s Second Service, Robert Parsons’ First Service and William Mundy’s Service ‘in medio chori’. Yet the imitative style, the technical complexity and the way in which Byrd uses the various vocal scorings available to him are much more sophisticated. Juxtaposition is particularly important—verse singers set against full choir, higher voices against lower voices, homophony against imitation—allowing 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, 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, for example using three countertenors 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 makes reference to his own set of Responses by quoting the music for ‘and ever shall be’ at exactly the same words in the Venite, and there are at least two phrases which were used by later composers: Thomas Weelkes (1576–1623), quotes the passage ‘and the rich’ from the Magnificat when setting ‘Heaven and earth’ in the Te Deum of his First Service; and Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625) reuses the phrase ‘all the days of our life’ from the Benedictus for the words ‘Glory be to the Father’ in his eight-part setting O clap your hands.
Byrd did publish spiritual music in English but it was designed more for performance in the home than during a service in the church. The earliest piece here is his setting of Unto the hills mine eyes I lift (Psalm 121) which is drawn from his collection entitled Songs of Sundrie Natures from 1589. It has its roots in the past and sounds a little reminiscent of the old Flemish style of imitation such as used by Robert Parsons in his anthem Deliver me from mine enemies. The remaining pieces are drawn from Byrd’s 1611 collection of Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets and use translations printed in The Primer, or Office of the blessed Virgin Marie from 1599. There is an intimacy and intricacy to this music and a clear understanding of how to translate the sort of word-painting found in madrigals into spiritual music. In Make ye joy to God (Psalm 100: 1–3) there is a riot of triplets suggesting carefree laughter at the words ‘Serve ye our Lord in gladness’ and running quavers at the word ‘jollity’. Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles (Psalm 117) is rather more restrained but with a powerful homophonic opening section and the most glorious Amen added to the end of the Psalm. This day Christ was born is a paraphrase of the Christmas antiphon Hodie Christus natus est and is scored for six voices which gives added brilliance through the use of two treble parts. Once again two sections in triplets give this piece an infectious rhythm. Turn our captivity, O Lord (Psalm 126: 4–6) is a masterpiece, plangent and imploring but with a confident triplet section for the ‘jollity’ that the blessed will inherit.
Andrew Carwood © 2012
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