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Hyperion Records

CDA68038 - Byrd: The three Masses
The Madonna delle Ombre (1450, detail) by Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro) (c1387-1455)
Museo di San Marco dell'Angelico, Florence / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA68038

Recording details: October 2013
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: September 2014
DISCID: 0810C013
Total duration: 71 minutes 28 seconds

'Byrd's double life, in public a member of Queen Elizabeth I's Chapel Royal in a newly Protestant England, in private a covert Catholic, directly shaped his music. Grand works such as the Great Service are among the glories of the English choral tradition. In contrast, the three Latin masses set here, long neglected, were for amateur, chamber performance in hidden Catholic communities. Westminster Cathedral Choir may sing them with more splendour and finesse than Byrd himself would have expected, yet the results are uplifting and moving. It's no slight to these musicians to say the disc is worth buying for the Byrd scholar John Milsom's incomparable notes: a masterly encapsulation of Tudor church music history in a few dense pages' (The Observer)

'Aided by the clarity of the recording, which nevertheless gives a sense of the ambiance of the Cathedral, all four parts (Agnus Dei, 4-part mass) shine through in a balance between the voices achieved at least as well as on any other recording … if I could have 24-bit sound on the island, the new Hyperion would have to be my first choice. It also sounds fine even in mp3—I haven’t tested the in-between 16-bit version—and it comes with a booklet of the usual high Hyperion quality' (MusicWeb International) » More

The three Masses

A new recording of the most perfect of Tudor masterpieces, Byrd’s three Mass-settings, from the cradle of their nineteenth-century rehabilitation. Westminster Cathedral Choir is enjoying a vintage period, and here we hear its trademark sound in all its glory: unfettered, natural singing from the trebles underpinned by warm yet clear tones from the gentlemen.

This recording celebrates Byrd’s Catholic Masses in two ways simultaneously. Most obviously, it addresses great and timeless works, which themselves address great and timeless liturgical texts. But at the same time it reminds us that the revival of Byrd’s Masses in the late nineteenth century was pioneered by Roman Catholic church choirs. This is a point worth pondering. Since the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, the choirs of England’s Protestant cathedrals and college chapels have had their own distinctive musical repertory, which has flourished and grown in unbroken tradition. The anthems and services of Thomas Tallis, for instance, have never fallen from cathedral use; they have been the epitome of Choral Evensong and Eucharist for more than four centuries. This Anglican repertory, however, is not what Roman Catholic worship requires. When major Catholic choral foundations were established in late Victorian and Edwardian England, at Downside Abbey, the Brompton Oratory, and above all at Westminster Cathedral, there was a quest for new and more relevant music; and it was at these places that William Byrd’s three Latin Masses were revived. Hence the pertinence of this recording; it celebrates that Catholic revival no less than it celebrates the works themselves.


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It is hard to imagine a time when William Byrdís Latin Masses and motets were not a cherished part of Englandís musical culture. Today these works seem to soar among the pinnacles of Tudor achievement, alongside the plays of Shakespeare, Byrdís contemporary; yet for two hundred years, from roughly the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth, they fell almost wholly from favour and use. This long neglect has nothing to do with their intrinsic quality, which has never been questioned. It is to do with the fact that they are Catholic music. Since 1558, England has been officially a Protestant nation, and Catholic culture has had to negotiate its place as best it can. Byrdís Catholic music, composed for a suppressed minority group in the decades around 1600, was by necessity inconspicuous when it was new, and it was wholly shunned by the established church. Only in more tolerant times has it risen to the surface, to be recognized and loved for its true worth.

This recording celebrates Byrdís Catholic Masses in two ways simultaneously. Most obviously, it addresses great and timeless works, which themselves address great and timeless liturgical texts. But at the same time it reminds us that the revival of Byrdís Masses in the late nineteenth century was pioneered by Roman Catholic church choirs. This is a point worth pondering. Since the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, the choirs of Englandís Protestant cathedrals and college chapels have had their own distinctive musical repertory, which has flourished and grown in unbroken tradition. The anthems and services of Thomas Tallis, for instance, have never fallen from cathedral use; they have been the epitome of Choral Evensong and Eucharist for more than four centuries. This Anglican repertory, however, is not what Roman Catholic worship requires. When major Catholic choral foundations were established in late Victorian and Edwardian England, at Downside Abbey, the Brompton Oratory, and above all at Westminster Cathedral, there was a quest for new and more relevant music; and it was at these places that William Byrdís three Latin Masses were revived. Hence the pertinence of this recording; it celebrates that Catholic revival no less than it celebrates the works themselves.

That being said, William Byrd, if he could hear these performances, would be amazed, for they are not at all what he would have envisaged. In the 1590s, when his Masses were composed, there were no Catholic church choirs in England, and he never imagined them being sung proudly and publicly in cathedrals for all to hear. Few hard facts survive about the kinds of performances Byrdís Catholic works received in his lifetime, but we can speculate with a fair degree of confidence. In the age of the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot, Englandís Roman Catholic community celebrated Mass covertly behind closed doors, taking pains not to be found out and punished or fined. Their secret services took place in rooms hastily converted into chapels, led by priests who led surreptitious lives. If music was used, then it was sung and played by whoever came safely to hand: family members, invited guests and trusted servants. By definition, then, Byrdís Masses are really chamber music, not choral repertory, and it was never Byrdís intention that they should be sung in the resonant ambience of a great church by a choir such as that of Westminster Cathedral.

Grand choral polyphony was, however, the stuff of Byrdís main career; for he lived a double life. In public, Byrd was the towering member of Queen Elizabethís chapel royal, a choir that served monarch, court, and the swarm of overseas diplomats and visitors that mingled with them. This choir typically sang in the grand chapels of the queenís palaces, such as Westminster, Greenwich and Richmond, and on occasions it also sang in more public places, even out of doors. It was for this choir, wearing his public hat as Englandís foremost musician, that Byrd sang, composed and played the organ, and it was therefore with the Chapel Royal in mind that Byrd composed his Great Service, a work of the greatest splendour, setting texts from the Book of Common Prayer for use at Mattins, Eucharist and Evensong. But this was only one side of Byrdís life. In private, he moved in the network of Englandís Catholic community, whose religious beliefs he shared, and for whom he also wrote musicóinitially motets, but latterly also works for liturgical use, such as the three Masses and, later, the impressive cycle called Gradualia. As Byrd grew older his allegiances shifted, and he spent less time in London and more time with the Catholics in rural Essex, where he set up home. But his retreat never became a rift. Up to his death Byrd remained loyal to his queen and his country, and he was tolerated at court even by those who knew of his double life.

Palpable differences of musical language exist between Byrdís public music and his private. In his Great Service Byrd delivers the words like an orator. Sometimes the choir sings in chains of chords, sometimes in symmetrical blocks, sometimes with polyphonic exuberance, but always with an aloof grandeur suited to ceremony and show; the effect is never intimate or confessional. The motets and Masses, conversely, savour their words more meditatively, and speak with a more personal voice. It is these Catholic works that have won Byrd his reputation for being one of Englandís most sensitive setters of words. Byrd himself claimed that, when composing, it was always the words that came first, and his vehemence emerges most clearly and powerfully in settings of those words that clearly mattered most to him. Hence the power of his three Masses; though written for undercover use by amateurs, these works engage powerfully and intensely with their words.

The Englishness of Byrdís Masses must also be mentioned, for these settings do not sound remotely like the Masses of Lassus or Palestrina. This is partly because of the way they were made, partly because of the way they allude to their Tudor past. Unlike most other Catholic composers of his generation, Byrd composed his three Masses freely, without directly quoting any pre-existing music. Hence the contrast with Palestrina and Lassus: those two composers habitually based their Masses on models, such as a motet or a plainchant melody, so that the Mass becomes a commentary on that model. Byrd, in contrast, simply took the words of the Mass as they came to him, and savoured them intuitively, using whatever melodies came into his head. Sometimes he makes audible allusion to the musical styles of his Tudor past, for instance through the turn of a melodic phrase or the choice of a chord or a selection of texture. By doing so, he invoked the music of his boyhoodóthe truly Catholic music of the reigns of Henry VIII (died 1547), and of Englandís last Catholic monarch, Queen Mary (reigned 1553Ė8), which coincided with the years when Byrd was a boy chorister. A nostalgia for the Tudor past therefore haunts these works, especially in the Mass for four voices, which was the first to be composed.

It is in fact possible to date the three Masses with reasonable precision. In 1589 and 1591, Byrd published two collections of motetsócalled by him Ďsacred songsí (Cantiones sacrae)óthat summed up his achievement to that date. Immediately after that, Byrdís mind seems to have turned to the words of the Catholic Mass, and his three settings were published in quick succession between around 1592 and 1595. The precise years of publication are unknown, since the prints themselves have no title pages; they are simply slender pamphlets of sheet music, headed with the name ĎW. Byrdí. Careful detective work, however, shows that the Mass for four voices, which is the most intimate and intense of the settings, came first. It was followed a year later by the Mass for three voices, which is a smaller and tighter work, and then by the Mass for five voices, which is the most serene of the three. This five-voice Mass sets the tone for Byrdís next and final project, the great cycle of Gradualiaósettings of liturgical texts for the Catholic calendar from Advent to Trinityówhich went to press in two volumes in 1605 and 1607.

Gradualia includes the four-voice motet Ave verum corpus, which sets words specified in the Catholic liturgy for use on the feast of Corpus Christi. Today no composition by Byrd is performed and recorded more often than this one, partly because it is such a gem, partly because it offers such rich opportunities for expressive singing, and partly because it is technically not hard for choirs to sing. Nonetheless this motet, like Byrdís Masses, attained its popularity only in the modern era; being strictly a Catholic work, it was totally shunned by English church musicians until its revival by Catholic choirs late in the nineteenth century. In an age of greater religious tolerance its popularity quickly spread, and by a pleasing twist of fortune Byrdís Ave verum corpus is now a staple not only of Catholic choral worship, but of Anglican too. Ave verum corpus at Evensong: again, Byrd would have been amazed.

John Milsom © 2014

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