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Hyperion Records

CDGIM011 - Byrd: The Great Service
Portrait of Elizabeth I.
Reproduced by kind permission of The National Portrait Gallery, London / 5175
St John-at-Hackney, London, United Kingdom
Release date: February 1987
Total duration: 52 minutes 43 seconds

The Great Service

Byrd's music for the Anglican Church has been performed regularly in services for some 400 years. Perennial favourites recorded here include the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis from the Great Service and the anthems O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth and Sing joyfully unto God.

These recordings are also available on the specially priced double album The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd.

Other recommended albums
'Byrd: The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd' (CDGIM208)
Byrd: The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99Buy by post £11.75 CDGIM208  2CDs for the price of 1  

The word ‘great’ in the sixteenth century did not so much mean ‘excellent’ as ‘large’. It was not, therefore, intended as a compliment but rather as a simple description, to which the opposite was ‘short’. In this sense the word is very well applied to the music recorded here, since it is the most elaborate and the lengthiest setting of these standard liturgical texts ever written for the Anglican Church. In every way Byrd’s conception is large-scale.

The six movements which make up Byrd’s Great Service are all part of the prescribed Anglican ritual for the celebration of Mattins, Evensong and Communion. Ever since the foundation of the Church of England at the Reformation it has been customary to sing the words of the Venite (Psalm 95), the Te Deum and the Benedictus at Mattins, and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis at Evensong. The Creed may also be sung during Communion, though it is now more common to sing other, shorter movements like the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Byrd set none of these in his Great Service except the Kyrie, which is an unvarying response to a chanting of the Ten Commandments and omitted from this recording on musical grounds. The other texts were once familiar in Catholic countries from the Offices of Matins (Venite and Te Deum), Lauds (Benedictus), Vespers (Magnificat), and Compline (Nunc dimittis). The stipulation for Anglican Mattins has also always given the Jubilate (Psalm 100) as an alternative to the Benedictus. It is an historical accident that by the seventeenth century both possibilities were equally popular, and still are, but that in the sixteenth century very few service settings included the Jubilate.

Byrd’s Great Service represented a major step forward for sacred music in England. It was probably written in the earlier part of his career, possibly before 1580 when the Anglican style was still quite experimental (for a fuller discussion see chapter 7 of Peter Phillips’ English Sacred Music 1549–1649, Gimell, 1991). In this music Byrd showed his contemporaries how certain aspects of Anglican choral music could be elaborated to splendid effect: in particular, the traditional arrangement of voices in English cathedral choirs. These were mean, two altos, tenor and bass, disposed in two separate groups, so that at the most a composer had at his disposal ten voice parts including four altos. Byrd’s intention was not so much to use all ten voices at once, as to change the scoring at regular intervals, in the same way that more recent composers vary the orchestration of a symphony. The result is that, although all the movements are based in a choir of MAATB, Byrd constantly added and subtracted voices to give different colours. A fine example in the Benedictus (Track 3) comes at ‘That we being delivered’, scored initially for MMATBB, but changing at ‘And thou, child’, to the remarkable sound of three altos and tenor. These passages for more than two altos are always memorable – perhaps the most famous is in the Magnificat at ‘As he promised to our forefather Abraham’ (Track 5), requiring AAATB and ending with an unprepared dominant seventh.

Much of the music, despite its length and sonority, in fact obeys the Protestant ideal that the words should be set clearly and not be lost in a cloud of abstract beauty. The length of these settings is achieved by verbal repetition not by pure music, though it is only in the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, which he probably wrote last, that Byrd was assured enough to develop the style to its limits. In the earlier movements sheer elaboration for musical reasons is less common, though noticeable enough when it happens, as in the Te Deum at the words ‘Also the Holy Ghost: the Comforter’ (Track 2). Here the same melody is worked for twenty-one bars. But the essence of Byrd’s achievement lies in the way he balanced his phrases, calling on constant variations of scoring and tonality. Master as he was of these techniques, Byrd’s writing remains lively and unpredictable even over a text as long as that of the Te Deum.

The recording ends with three of Byrd’s finest English anthems. The first, scored for MAATB, was evidently written in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and is a prayer from the composer to his patroness. The other two are more extrovert, both scored for MAATB. O God, the proud are risen is a dramatic realization of its text, especially at ‘slow to anger’. ‘Slow’ is set conventionally enough to long notes, but against this Byrd made the ‘anger’ flash out in quick movement. Sing joyfully unto God is surely Byrd’s most accomplished anthem, full of jubilation and, at the end, extended musical argument. The resonant chords at ‘Blow the trumpet in the new moon’ represent some most memorable word-painting.

Peter Phillips © 1987

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