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Hyperion Records

CDGIM345 - Byrd: The three Masses
Christ on the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Reproduced by permission of The Wallace Collection, London
CDGIM345

Merton College Chapel, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Steve C Smith & Peter Phillips
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: September 1984
Total duration: 66 minutes 18 seconds

The three Masses

The original release on CD of this classic recording of the three Masses by William Byrd.

These recordings are also available on the specially priced double album The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd. The Mass for four voices is also available on Renaissance Giants.


Other recommended albums
'Byrd: The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd' (CDGIM208)
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'Renaissance Giants' (CDGIM207)
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William Byrd (1543–1623) is known to have been a tenaciously loyal Catholic in a country which was more or less militantly Protestant. In the last resort Byrd could have been sent to the stake for his beliefs and, as a member of the Chapel Royal Choir, he was always likely to attract the attention of the Protestants at Court. Indeed from 1585 onwards he was continuously cited for recusancy: his house in Harlington was several times searched for incriminating literature. He and his family were yearly expected to pay crippling fines on account of their religion – in 1587 it was £200 – but it seems that Byrd had sufficiently powerful friends at Court for this sum usually to be waived. It is possible that the Queen herself directly protected him (for further details see Joseph Kerman’s article on Byrd in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London, 1980).

It took some courage, therefore, for a composer to set Latin texts at all at that time. Actually to publish these compositions took a great deal more, yet it was necessary to publish them if the many covert recusant chapels were to be provided with up-to-date music for their services. Byrd published his three Mass-settings between c.1593 and c.1595 separately, in very small books and without any title-pages, though the music is coolly attributed to Byrd on all the pages (see P. Clulow, ‘Publication Dates for Byrd’s Latin Masses’, Music and Letters, xlvii, 1966). After Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603 the political climate seemed briefly as though it were more favourable to the Catholics. In 1605 Byrd became bolder and published a collection of motets, called the Gradualia, which abandons any pretence at concealment. However, after the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament later in that year, Byrd felt obliged to withdraw this edition of the Gradualia, and stored its pages until 1610 when he reissued it. Byrd’s strength of character in proclaiming his religion is shown again in other highly incriminating gestures which he was determined to make – for instance in 1583 when he attended a house party in Berkshire to welcome two of the most celebrated of Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Henry Garnet and Robert Southwell, the poet.

Against this background it comes as no surprise to discover that the music itself is deeply expressive. The Masses were originally written with the pragmatic purpose of giving small amateur choirs settings of important texts which they could reasonably hope to master. The five-part Mass, with its two tenor parts, seems rather ambitious in this context, but it is in fact less elaborate than many of the Latin-texted motets that Byrd wrote at this time. Their musical style has been a source of abiding fascination to many enthusiasts for this music (for a fuller discussion see Joseph Kerman, The Masses and Motets of William Byrd, London 1981, p.190ff). The exact mixture of influences from the past and from abroad has certainly produced an unusually direct mode of communication, despite the fact that it is also rather archaic. From the past Byrd has learned about, and remained true to, the English preference for counterpoint. If the four- and five-part Masses be compared, for instance, with Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli it will be seen that Palestrina regularly uses purely chordal passages, even though his setting overall is longer than Byrd’s. Byrd, while aiming for concision, somehow managed to retain a very closely argued and efficient type of imitative counterpoint almost all the time. The best place to make this comparison is at the beginning of the respective Glorias and Credos, where Palestrina is initially eager to move through the long texts without elaboration. From the Continent Byrd obviously learnt how to pare down his use of imitation, yet the way he put this into practice here could not be confused with any Continental writer’s approach.

All these details make for an unmistakable austerity of tone, and in this lies the peculiar power of these pieces. It is like a theme, to which each movement of each of the three Masses is a variation; but the theme is a mood, not a melody. Its emotional range extends from a darkness which is almost hopeless – in the four-part Agnus Dei – to a fierce defiance in adversity at ‘Et resurrexit’ in the five-part Credo. During the course of these pieces Byrd clearly explored every feeling a man may have when he is fighting for something he passionately believes in, with his back to the wall.

The four-part Mass is generally reckoned to be the earliest of the set, probably written around 1592, with the three-part following shortly after it, and the five-part coming last. The four-part is probably the most popular and intensely personal of the three, but it is arguable that it has some slight uncertainties of method, for instance at the end of the Credo which seems too short. In the five-part Mass in particular this passage – from ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’ to the end – is substantially longer than in the four-part, and this gives a better balance to the movement as a whole. This is in contrast to the fact that in the later settings his inclination was to compress the dimensions of the four-part setting. With the three-part this may have been because his hand was forced by the difficulty of conceiving counterpoint at length for so few voices; but in the five-part the Kyrie and Gloria are set much more concisely. One must conclude that the four-part acted as a model for the others, which he improved upon where he could, with the result that his five-part Mass is one of the most convincingly argued, as well as sonorous, achievements in all his music.

Peter Phillips © 1985

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