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Hyperion Records

CDA67779 - Byrd: Infelix ego & other sacred music
The Suffering of the Saints: St Paul on the Road to Damascus, from the Heures d'Etienne Chevalier (c1445) by Jean Fouquet (c1420-1480)
Musée Condé, Chantilly, France / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67779
Recording details: April 2009
Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, United Kingdom
Produced by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Engineered by Martin Haskell & Iestyn Rees
Release date: February 2010
Total duration: 59 minutes 40 seconds

GRAMOPHONE RECORDING OF THE YEAR 2010
GRAMOPHONE EDITOR'S CHOICE

'Hyperion has done Byrd proud … it's a mixture also of the celebratory, as though the singers were congratulating themselves on a job well done—as well they might—and the pentitential, concluding with the full ensemble in a finely judged and quite extrovert Infelix ego, surely one of Byrd's most memorable motets … the commitment of singers and label alike is a cause for gratitude, perhaps even optimism. Congratulations to all concerned' (Gramophone)

'The Cardinall's Musick pays tribute to the whole landscape of Byrd's genius with a passion that ends the project on a high. As with the earlier instalments, Andrew Carwood's direction and programming are equally inspired … the centrepiece is the searing Infelix ego; here, the recusant Byrd explores a martyr's preparation for death, taking the listener through every emotional extreme before transcending the built-up tension in a glorious coda. The musical imagination of The Cardinall's Musick does full justice to that of Byrd. Unique about this ensemble is its expressiveness, whether members sing seamlessly as one or tug at each other's lines. The group's delivery is a sensual delight' (BBC Music Magazine)

Infelix ego & other sacred music
Propers for The Feast of All Saints

The Cardinall’s Musick’s award-winning Byrd series reaches its final volume, which includes some of the composer’s most sublime and adventurous music, drawn in the main from the 1591 Cantiones Sacrae collection. Throughout this series it has become evident that a comprehensive survey such as this shows the genius of the composer in a uniquely effective way: by demonstrating the extraordinary variety and unsurpassable quality of his musical and liturgical achievements. Andrew Carwood defines Byrd as the greatest composer of the age in his booklet note—as he writes: ‘If there is an English musician who comes close to Shakespeare in his consummate artistry, his control over so many genres and his ability to speak with emotional directness it must be William Byrd.’

The ‘title track’ of this volume, Infelix ego, is the crowning glory of Byrd’s achievement as a composer of spiritual words and one of the greatest artistic statements of the sixteenth century. This remarkable text, taking the form of a number of rhetorical statements and questions, shows the whole gamut of emotion from a soul in torment—guilt, fear, embarrassment, anger, but crucially the gift of release when Christ’s mercy is accepted. It can be seen as a microcosm of Byrd’s sacred music and a fitting crown to this series.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
It is perhaps no surprise that Elizabethan England should have produced such an amazing array of artistic talent. Increased prosperity, strongly enforced government with a consistent religious policy, the growth of confidence as England took its place as a diplomatic and military force, these all helped to create the right conditions in which the arts could flourish. The arts were no longer simply used for reasons of propaganda and display but saw an increase in the importance of the individual and his unique abilities, a natural development from the humanistic ideas of the Renaissance. Standing at the pinnacle of this English flourishing is William Shakespeare, a man who through his crafting of words, control of drama and subtle character development could speak to people in many and various ways. Raucous vaudeville, romantic plot lines or searing tragedy for all, as well as coded political messages for monarchs, princes and politicians all under the guise of ‘innocent’ entertainment. If there is an English musician who comes close to Shakespeare in his consummate artistry, his control over so many genres and his ability to speak with emotional directness it must be William Byrd.

Byrd spent his formative years in the maelstrom of the English reformation. Born in the reign of Henry VIII, he would have seen the changes brought in by Edward VI and his Protestant advisors and experienced, perhaps more deeply, Mary’s artistically stimulating Catholic restoration in his teenage years. As an adult he lived through the reign of Elizabeth and was in his sixties when her successor James came to the throne. It seems clear that Byrd’s sympathies lay with the Catholic cause. Unlike most of his contemporaries (except Peter Philips who fled to the Continent) the majority of his religious music was written in Latin. Furthermore, in the 1590s and the dangerous months after the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 he published not only music in Latin but texts specifically designed to be performed during the celebration of Catholic Mass and Divine Office. His three settings of the Ordinary movements of the Mass were published in the early 1590s and his two books of Gradualia in 1605 and 1607 respectively. In addition he published Latin sacred music in 1575, 1589 and 1591 and left a host of pieces in manuscript. It is interesting that not a note of his music for Elizabeth’s reformed church (including the monumental Great Service for ten voices) was published during his lifetime.

Byrd was probably not encouraged to write by the stability or consistency of Elizabeth’s reign. It is possible that the anti-Catholic legislation enacted by the government was a stimulus; perhaps even the crescendo of tension around the imminent arrival of the first Spanish Armada and its defeat in 1588 might have had an effect on the composer but this is merely speculation. The simple fact appears to be that Byrd proclaimed through his music his Catholic faith, the deprivation that he felt and the hope to which he clung. In so doing, he spoke directly to the Catholic community with messages of hope and consolation. It is remarkable that Byrd escaped serious penalty for his beliefs. Perhaps the censors and the spies did not understand his messages or notice his carefully chosen texts where verses from scripture were placed in a different order so as to highlight a particular emotion. Perhaps music was not thought to be a serious threat. And perhaps Byrd’s devotion to the country of his birth was clearly understood. He never left England and if he considered the possibility of joining the throng of Catholic exiles he never acted on the idea. Undoubtedly the greatest point in his favour was his brilliance as a musician. He was able to assimilate the sounds of the past as taught to him by John Sheppard and Thomas Tallis, to learn from his contemporaries (especially Alfonso Ferrabosco) and then to be at the forefront of compositional development at all times, most notably in the madrigalian pieces of the 1591 Cantiones Sacrae and the two books of Gradualia (published when Byrd was in his sixties). Elizabeth I might even have been personally aware and appreciative of his talents. Surely she must have been moved by his most beautiful English-texted piece O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen to rejoice in thy strength. Is it too fanciful to suggest that there was some degree of understanding between the two? Shakespeare was allowed to make pointed contemporary remarks under the cloak of entertainment: perhaps Byrd was given the same liberty with his music.

The pieces on this disc are drawn in the main from the 1591 Cantiones Sacrae, a collection which contains some of his most sublime and adventurous music. Domine, non sum dignus is an exquisite setting of words spoken by a centurion when Christ offers to come to his house to heal the man’s servant (Luke 7: 6–7), a text most often used as a preparation before receiving the host at Mass. Byrd displays his usual madrigalian features, especially at the words ‘sed tantum dic verbum’ (‘but only say the word’) where the imitation comes thick and fast before the healing of the final section.

In a similar vein is Domine, salva nos. A prayer for help and for the coming of peace, it draws its text from the story of Christ rebuking the storm at sea (Matthew 8: 25–26). Byrd uses a downward scale for the word ‘perimus’ (‘we perish’) as the disciples can be seen sinking below the waves before a beautifully serene phrase for ‘tranquillitatem’ and the use of an unprepared dominant seventh to make the final cadence even more poignant.

Haec dies (Psalm 117: 24) is a riot of energy and with its use of triple metre and close imitation it belongs more to the world of the madrigal than the motet. This text is most often used at Easter and the setting which Byrd has produced is perfect for this season. It was also widely believed that these were the final words of the Jesuit Father Edmund Campion who was tortured and executed having arrived from the Continent to minister to the Catholic community in England. Byrd’s setting for six voices could stand in direct opposition to his other Campion-inspired piece, Deus venerunt gentes (1589), and represent Campion’s arrival in heaven rather than his painful departure from earth.

Cunctis diebus is in some ways a companion piece to the extended Infelix ego. Both start with a section for three voices (reminiscent of the old Votive Antiphon) and Byrd even uses a first inversion chord at the cadence before the first choral entry, a nod in the direction of Robert White who had used this startling gesture at the end of the first section of his Lamentations for five voices. Cunctis diebus is an example of Byrd choosing his words carefully. He uses verses from the famously miserable Book of Job: one verse from chapter 14 and then two from chapter 10. There is nothing positive here and Byrd highlights the darkness with his harmony at the words ‘ut plangam paululum’ (‘that I might lament a little’). Yet in the final section ‘where there is no order, but everlasting horror dwells’, Byrd chooses a rather cool and neutral sound world before a ravishing coda. Perhaps Byrd’s message is that fear of what is to come is unfounded and that the new world is not so terrifying.

Afflicti pro peccatis nostris also refers to an older world, using a plainsong cantus firmus throughout, first in the baritone part then moving to the tenor part in the second section. This text would have been used as a Respond during Lent according to the Sarum Rite (the old rite in force throughout most of England before the Reformation) and it is interesting that Byrd has provided cadences in the right places to allow the insertion of plainsong verses. Cantate Domino in complete contrast is a showy, ebullient piece as befits its positive text with many madrigalian touches and is as succinct as Infelix ego is extended.

Infelix ego is the crowning glory of Byrd’s achievement as a composer of spiritual words and one of the greatest artistic statements of the sixteenth century. The text is a meditation on Psalm 50 written by the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498). This remarkable man successfully led a campaign in Florence against the corrupt Medici family. With his powerful preaching he roused the townsfolk in religious zeal, cast out the Medici and set up a devastatingly rigorous Christian regime. Inevitably the fickle populace eventually grew tired of Savonarola’s severe piety and welcomed the Medici back; to satisfy their wounded pride, the family arranged for Savonarola to be tried for heresy (rather than treason) and then executed by fire. This remarkable text, taking the form of a number of rhetorical statements and questions, shows the whole gamut of emotion from a soul in torment—guilt, fear, embarrassment, anger, but crucially the gift of release when Christ’s mercy is accepted.

Infelix ego had been set before by Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore and Orlandus Lassus but none of these comes even close to this emotional tour de force. Byrd would have known Tallis’s radical setting of the prayer Suscipe quaeso Domine which uses homophony set against polyphony to underline rhetorical questions and which must inform the younger composer’s setting. But more than this Byrd seems to have an emotional link with Savonarola’s words and to understand the mindset which has given rise to them. Savonarola sits in his cell in Florence awaiting execution for having followed his heart and his religious faith. At one time he was acclaimed by the people and his beliefs were an integral part of their lives. Byrd is in England, cut off from his faith and the rest of the Church to which he belongs. His colleagues are persecuted for their beliefs, beliefs which had been held by most of the people in England. Perhaps it is this shared metaphorical experience which leads Byrd to understand the real power of this text. There is not the space here for a full analysis of this Renaissance symphony, nor time to refer to all of the telling and subtle gestures which permeate the piece. The upward melodies which express the yearning in the writer’s eyes looking up to heaven for redemption, like Marlowe’s Faustus seeing the blood of Christ running in the heavens but being unable to access it. The juxtaposition of polyphony with homophony throughout: the constant ebbing and flowing of emotion as powerful as the sea. The build up of tension caused by an extended period of imitation around one of Byrd’s most frequently chosen words (‘misericordiam’ or ‘mercy’). The master stroke of a caesura followed by an astonishing chord progression and then a coda where it seems as if the longed-for mercy has actually been received.

The set of Propers for The Feast of Saints (Gradualia, 1605) with its two equal soprano parts has a luminous quality and is the most joyous and witty set that Byrd produced. The vigorous Introit (Gaudeamus omnes) gives way to a more meditative setting of the Gradual (Timete Dominum) and Alleluia (Venite ad me) where Byrd indulges his love of musical games at the words ‘Come to me, all you who labour’. The ‘labour’ is complex but the style rather light and filigree and it is hard not to have in mind the companion text ‘his yoke is easy and his burden is light’. The words which follow, ‘and I will refresh you’, feel rather like an intellectual musical work-out, complex but satisfying. The Offertory Iustorum animae is a serene reminder that those who have died lie in the peace of God. Beati mundo corde, the Communion sentence, is a setting of some words from the Beatitudes. Byrd starts with just three voices for the first phrase, before moving to four voices and then five in a completely satisfying setting of a text which must have spoken clearly to the Catholic community.

There are also some miscellaneous pieces in the Gradualia collections. It is possible that these were to be used during recusant services but it is perhaps more likely that they belong in the realm of spiritual entertainments for the home. Venite, exsultemus Domino and Laudate Dominum (both published in 1607) are settings of Psalm 94: 1–2 and the whole of Psalm 116 respectively. Byrd has not provided settings of the doxology to either piece but has added an affirmatory Alleluia and Amen to Venite, exsultemus Domino. Both pieces show Byrd flexing his considerable musical and intellectual muscle. Instrumental in concept, they rely on close imitation and vocal dexterity, indeed the writing in Venite, exsultemus is sometimes more reminiscent of the development section of a Classical symphony, with melodic cells thrown from one voice to another as the drama of the piece develops.

Visita quaesumus, Domine is one of the exquisite miniatures of the 1605 Gradualia. The text seems to be a variant on a prayer from Compline and its scoring for two sopranos, an alto and a tenor is unusual but not without precedent. Byrd had experimented with similar forces as a young man in his contribution to the lengthy Psalm-setting In exitu Israel with his friend William Mundy and his mentor John Sheppard and later in the ripely Italian-sounding Salve sola Dei genetrix. Also in the 1605 Gradualia is the tiny Deo gratias, a setting for four voices which could be used on any occasion as a blessing or dismissal.


This disc is the last in The Cardinall’s Musick series devoted to William Byrd’s Latin Church Music. It has been a wonderful journey of discovery and one which has revealed new gems and hidden treasures at every turn. Thanks are due especially to ASV who first gave us the opportunity to record and then to our friends at Hyperion who generously undertook to complete the series. Thanks also to David Skinner who, as co-founder of the group, had a clear vision of the importance of academic excellence in performance and produced so many of the editions for this series: David Martin and most recently David Fraser have provided editions to complete the series and Richard Turbet has been an enthusiastic advisor and supporter. David Skinner was also the producer for eight of these discs until his mantle was passed to Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, whose style, wit and sharpness of ear have been invaluable. Martin Haskell has been the engineer for every disc, ably assisted by several friends but most often Iestyn Rees. His unsurpassable recorded sound has been a key element in the success of the project. Finally my thanks go to the singers themselves, a tight-knit group of talented musicians and friends who have brought much experience, patience and skill to these pieces. William Byrd could not be served by more committed advocates.

Andrew Carwood © 2010


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
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'Byrd: Assumpta est Maria & other sacred music' (CDA67675)
Byrd: Assumpta est Maria & other sacred music
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £10.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 44.1 kHz £9.00ALAC 24-bit 44.1 kHz £9.00 CDA67675  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Byrd: The Great Service & other English music' (CDA67937)
Byrd: The Great Service & other English music
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