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William Byrd (1539/40-1623)

Ave verum corpus & other sacred music

The Cambridge Singers, John Rutter (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: April 1989
Great Hall, University College School, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jillian White
Engineered by Campbell Hughes
Release date: October 2002
Total duration: 69 minutes 26 seconds

This recording presents a selection of fifteen of the 150 or so Latin motets and three of the dozens of English anthems that, between them, form the larger part of the life’s work of William Byrd (1543-1623), the greatest English composer of his era. The chosen motets and anthems represent just some of the many facets of Byrd’s sacred music, now recognized after three centuries of neglect as among the most glorious ever written for choir.


'An excellent disc, then, containing a good selection of some of the finest a capella music written for the English church. The performances are consistently of the highest order' (MusicWeb International)» More
William Byrd’s place of honour as the greatest English composer of his era was hardly disputed in his lifetime and is hardly disputed now; yet only a small proportion of his large output is regularly performed, and indeed much of his sacred choral music, the core of his life’s work, is virtually never performed. A handful of favoured motets, three Mass settings and some English Service music scarcely represent all the extraordinary richness, variety and expressive range to be found in the 150 or so Latin motets and over fifty English anthems into which he poured prodigious invention, unsurpassed technical mastery and passionate religious conviction.

The reasons for this neglect are, in part, understandable. Byrd’s position in English musical life was anomalous: despite living and working in post-Reformation Protestant England, and despite writing some fine music for the new Anglican rite, he remained a staunch Catholic, writing and publishing Latin church music for the obsolete and indeed illegal Roman liturgy. Such performances as took place of his Latin church music were clandestine, held in Catholic country houses such as that of Byrd’s patron Lord Petre who, like many others, risked the harsh penalties meted out to Catholic recusants for the sake of practising his faith. After Byrd’s death his Latin publications were forgotten and only his English church music, some of which circulated in manuscript, remained in use. Thus matters remained until the early twentieth century when advocacy by such musicians as the organists H. B. Collins and R. R. Terry and the composer Holst led to a revival of interest; in the 1920s Byrd’s church music was republished as part of the monumental Tudor Church Music edition, then in 1937 the musicologist E. H. Fellowes began work on a second, practical edition, a project he finally completed in 1950. Yet comparatively few of the pieces in these great collected volumes were ever published separately and to this day most of Byrd’s church music is to be found only in large books more suited to libraries than to choir stalls.

If the Reformed liturgy, inaccessibility of much of the music, and the lack of a continuous tradition of performance are obvious factors in over three centuries of neglect, there are perhaps other more subtle factors too. Like most of his contemporaries, Byrd himself remains a shadowy figure. Only the outward events of his life were recorded, and we have none of the biographical infilling that, at its best, can help to illuminate the work of a Mozart or a Beethoven. Such personal qualities ascribed to Byrd as his stubbornness, shrewd business and political skills and so forth are deduced from the few known facts of his career, not chronicled in the memoirs of those who knew him. As with his greatest English artistic contemporary, Shakespeare, all that really remains of Byrd is his work, a legacy almost too daunting to take hold of on its own without the prior familiarity Shakespeare has enjoyed from continuous performance since his lifetime. Accident of revival, moreover, has favoured Byrd’s English church music (by far the smaller part of his sacred work), together with the three Masses which, magnificent as they are, seem to have been conceived as essentially functional settings, intentionally more austere and impersonal then the gloriously rich and colourful motets.

Byrd’s commitment to the motet—which in England, it must again be stressed, was a liturgically obsolete and unusable form except possibly in the Chapel Royal and Oxbridge chapels—seems paradoxically to have deepened as his life went on. A motet is defined as a polyphonic setting of a Latin sacred text, to be sung at a certain point in the Mass: but it is clear that the young Byrd divorced the form from its liturgical function in his three collections of Cantiones Sacrae (1575, 1589 and 1591). He describes the pieces in the 1575 volume as ‘cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur’ (songs which, from their subject-matter, are called sacred)—a form of words perhaps designed to avoid any accusation of papistry but perhaps also suggesting that domestic and not church performance was envisaged. Byrd chose his texts freely without consideration for the liturgy: it has often been remarked that a number of them can be construed as laments for the plight of the English Catholics. The idea that amateurs might perform sacred pieces in their own homes was not, incidentally, far-fetched: Byrd’s English publications, the Psalmes, Sonets and Songs (1588), Songs of Sundrie Natures (1589) and Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets (1611), all consist of a mixture of sacred and secular pieces for home performance. There can be no doubt, however, that by the time Byrd published his two books of Gradualia in 1605 and 1607 he had taken up the more ‘committed’ (and traditional) position of thinking of the motet specifically as a liturgical form: all the hundred or so motets in these two collections are ordered according to their appropriate place in Masses and Offices at various times in the church’s year—with considerable precision, moreover. Kerman has pointed out that in the dedication of Book 2 to Lord Petre Byrd refers to the contents as having ‘mostly proceeded from your house (truly most friendly to me and mine)’, a broad hint that Petre’s extensive household at Ingatestone Hall in Essex—near Byrd’s home in Stondon Massey—had used the music at undercover masses.

Evidence that Byrd’s Latin church music was indeed sung, perhaps in the composer’s presence, is cheering; yet his monumental achievement in composing, setting in order and publishing such varied and finely-wrought motets seems to transcend purely practical intentions. Like Bach's publications—the Clavierübung, the Canonic Variations, the Art of Fugue—Byrd’s Cantiones Sacrae and more especially his Gradualia seem to stand as testaments. It is tempting, but fanciful, to suppose that Byrd published his Latin church music in readiness for the day the Catholic faith might return to England; more likely, he wanted to codify and set down in print his achievement, so that the musical styles it represented and the liturgy it was intended to adorn should not be completely forgotten.

For us today, this music is a treasure house that, thanks to the work of such as Fellowes, Kerman and Brett has been explored and examined; it now cries out for wider public exposure.

Sing joyfully
This concise and delightfully festive anthem was never published by Byrd himself, but it gained very widespread popularity in his lifetime, appearing in about a hundred early seventeenth-century manuscript and printed sources. On stylistic grounds le Huray believes it to date from Byrd’s later years; it is not unlike his Sing we merrily, published in 1611. Word-painting, notably at ‘blow the trumpet in the new moon’ helps bring the familiar psalm text vividly to life.

Turn our captivity
Published in Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets of 1611, this is a rare example of an English anthem by Byrd with a text that can be taken to refer to the ‘captivity’ of the English Catholics (a significant number of his earlier Latin motets have this political undertone). The style of the music shows the influence of the madrigals and consort music of the time—appropriately enough, since the 1611 collection seems to have been intended for home rather than church performance. Byrd uses the six-voiced texture with resourceful economy, frequently contrasting groups of high and low voices and only rarely using all six at once. A nice musical pun is found at the opening, where the three-note rising phrase on the word ‘turn’ is immediately ‘turned’ upside down.

Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles
Also from the 1611 publication, this magnificent anthem seems to belong more in a great cathedral than in a music room; perhaps Byrd wrote it for the Chapel Royal and later put it in Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets rather than let it be forgotten. Fellowes singles out its spacious Amen as ‘one of the most perfect settings of the word in the whole realm of music’.

Emendemus in melius
This was the piece Tallis and Byrd chose to open their joint 1575 collection of Cantiones Sacrae. Byrd was no doubt rightly proud of it, and must have remembered it in later years when writing his very similar Miserere mei (1591) and the final section (also to the Miserere text) of his monumental Infelix ego (1591). Yet it is easy to overlook how novel the deceptively simple, hymn-like texture of Emendemus would have seemed in 1575; nothing quite like it had been written in England, though there is a clear model in a motet by the Italian Ferrabosco, whose work Byrd studied and admired. The text is solemnly intoned in richly-spaced chords, with dramatic silences between almost every line; imitative polyphony is stripped away, save for the final ‘libera nos’. The overall effect was aptly described by Kerman: ‘It does not often happen with Byrd (or any other composer) that a piece breathes such immediacy; however modest in style and scope, the piece is red hot, with its rush of phrases, its flux of melodic style, its brazen climax, and its amazing resolution doubly powerful and doubly solid because in the few bars infinite power seems held in reserve.’ (‘On William Byrd’s Emendemus in melius’, The Musical Quarterly, 1963, p. 431)

Siderum rector
Also from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae, this heart-easingly gracious and flowing hymn-setting (Byrd calls it ‘hymnus’) is, like Emendemus in melius, an experiment based on a Ferrabosco model. The experiment consisted in following the metre of a hymn text in music whose note values matched the long and short syllables of the poetry rather exactly. (This idea, vers mesuré, had been in the air for a while.) Byrd, aware of the risk of monotony inherent in the rather insistent Sapphic metre of Siderum rector, wisely set only two stanzas, and provided variety by swapping the melody between soprano and tenor and adding a little polyphonic elaboration to the plain texture.

Plorans plorabit
This is one of the few non-liturgical motets in the 1605 Gradualia: its text is clearly one of the several chosen by Byrd for musical setting (mainly in the 1589 and 1591 Cantiones Sacrae) because of their relevance to the English Catholic ‘captivity’; its double meaning even extends to the warning that the King and Queen (James I and Anne) who are keeping ‘the Lord’s flock’ captive will be brought low. The sombre character of this text is reflected in its vocal layout, with only one soprano line but divided altos. In 1622 Henry Peacham, in The Compleat Gentleman, wrote that Byrd was ‘of him selfe naturally disposed to Gravitie and Pietie’, and in this piece he wrote one of the finest and most eloquent of his laments. Apart from a half-close in its thirty-sixth bar, the eighty-six-bar piece sweeps forward from beginning to end as if in one intense flood of grief, controlled only by the discipline of its tightly-knit polyphony.

Visita, quaesumus Domine
This inexplicably neglected little piece must be one of the loveliest and most affecting Byrd ever wrote. It comes from the 1605 Gradualia, and presents an unexpectedly serene, gentle aspect of his musical personality. In a texture of magical transparency, without basses, he paints a sound-picture of guardian angels hovering overhead, akin in atmosphere to the peace and radiance of a Raphael Nativity. The office of Compline, itself a jewel of liturgy, can seldom have been so sensitively and evocatively adorned.

Attollite portas
One of the boldest and most ambitious of Byrd’s earlier compositions, this psalm-motet was published in the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae and also appears, adapted to English words, in manuscript sources. As in Turn our captivity, Byrd uses a six-voiced texture not only for intricate imitative polyphony but also for echo effects between high and low voices.

Laudibus in sanctis
This joyful and quite extended setting of an anonymous poetic paraphrase of Psalm 150 opens the 1591 Cantiones Sacrae. It is interesting that Byrd wrote very few madrigals but was willing, here and elsewhere in his sacred works, to adopt madrigal techniques—word-painting, dance rhythms and clear sectional construction—if he so chose. Laudibus in sanctis is one of the most madrigalian of Byrd’s motets, a feature that in 1591 would have seemed novel and even revolutionary. An interpretative conundrum presents itself in the ‘laeta chorea pede’ section: Brown (in The Byrd Edition) and Kerman are categorically certain that the dotted minim here is equivalent to the semibreve of the preceding and following sections. We tried it that way. But singers and producer rebelled; the dancing feet referred to in the text obstinately plodded. We adopted Thurston Dart’s solution (dotted minim = minim), which doubles the speed, and the music instantly danced. There are no manuscript sources for this piece; is it possible that there is a mistake in the only source we have, Byrd’s printed edition? Proportional notation was confusing and sometimes ambiguous even to sixteenth-century musicians.

Gaudeamus omnes
This brightly-voiced motet, published in the 1605 Gradualia, celebrates the Feast of All Saints with spirited merriment; the rejoicing of the angels is delightfully depicted in a passage calling for vocal and verbal agility.

Ave verum corpus
Published in the 1605 Gradualia but believed by Kerman to have been written earlier, this motet in honour of the Blessed Sacrament has long been one of Byrd’s best-loved pieces, and indeed it does distil in a short space many of his special qualities: perfectly controlled polyphony that is wonderful to sing; clear structure; an element of the unexpected (as in the progression of the first three chords); and, above all, an unmistakable sense of fervour and conviction that reaches out and takes hold of the listener.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus, et emitte
The text of this mellifluously fervent motet from the 1607 Gradualia is the so-called ‘Golden Sequence’, proper to Pentecost, a prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Facing the challenge of a longer-than-usual text, Byrd skilfully contrives to set the words concisely and without repetition, yet without the slightest sense of haste or lack of overall coherence. The opening invocation ‘Veni’ is as simple and effective as can be imagined.

Christus resurgens
Motets of this type, where one of the voice parts (in this case the tenor) consists of a plainchant cantus firmus in slow notes, passed out of favour after the Reformation, not least because plainchant was itself jettisoned by the reformers. Byrd wrote about a dozen specimens of this essentially archaic form, mostly in his early years; Christus resurgens was published in the 1605 Gradualia, but may well have been written much earlier. If so, Byrd had good reason to remember it and want to see it in print: it has an atmosphere unlike any other of his pieces—defiant, powerful, gritty, bespeaking the struggle and victory of the Resurrection.

Solve iubente Deo
It is worth studying the text of this exceptionally sonorous and resplendent motet from the 1607 Gradualia; Byrd illustrates it; phrase by phrase, with vividness and imagination, from the bold opening command ‘Solve’, to the rapid passage on ‘catenas’ suggestive of rattling chains, and finally to the calm vistas of the ‘caelestia regna beatis’. St Peter, as the founder of the Church, was clearly a figure of special significance to Byrd, and his festivals are honoured in the Gradualia with two other notably fine six-voice motets, Tu es Petrus and Tu es pastor ovium.

O magnum misterium
Byrd’s setting of this much-loved text was published in the 1607 Gradualia. Beata Virgo, although shown as a separate motet, was intended to follow it immediately in the liturgy and is here included. Awe and wonder are fittingly conveyed in music of great simplicity and tenderness.

Non vos relinquam
This poignantly brief and tightly-knit motet from the 1607 Gradualia conceals its contrapuntal complexity (including beautifully interwoven alleluias) behind a deceptively simple, flowing texture. Byrd somehow manages to combine a feeling of the sadness of Christ’s parting from the Apostles with the joy he promises for them in the future.

O quam suavis
The text of this eucharistic motet from the 1607 Gradualia is curious, beginning as it does with mystical contemplation of the Sacrament but moving on to echo a verse from the Magnificat (to which it serves as an antiphon), and ending somewhat vindictively with the rich being sent empty away. Byrd encompasses the changes of subject and mood in a seamlessly unified setting remarkable for the chromatic harmonies with which it opens.

Iustorum animae
Peace—or, at least, peace of mind—is something Byrd can scarcely have experienced in his own life. The practice of his illegal faith made him forever vulnerable to informers, enemies and a hostile government; a life spent in fear, however subconscious, of the knock on the door at midnight cannot be a relaxed one. Iustorum animae, from the 1605 Gradualia, evokes the profound and eternal peace to be hoped for in the next life. It belongs to musical history’s small and select company of pieces that speak of heaven as if from personal knowledge.

John Rutter 1989

It is folly to imagine that we can today faithfully recreate performances of Byrd’s church music such as he might have heard and approved: too many parameters remain uncertain. First, it should be said that to listen to a seventy-minute sequence of anthems and motets, many of which were intended to be heard singly in the context of religious ritual, is rather like attending a complete performance of Bach's ‘48’: worthwhile, but utterly different from the composer’s intention. This apart, Byrd poses a number of specific questions not easily answered. Unlike most of his English contemporaries, he had publication in mind when he wrote sacred music, even though in some cases publication represented little more than a gathering together of music previously circulated in manuscript. The Cantiones Sacrae books must have been intended primarily for amateurs to buy and perform in their own homes, just like the flood of madrigal publications in the 1590s and later. It seems likely that these home performances would have involved small adult groups, with female sopranos. A similar situation probably applied to the Gradualia: if Byrd had immediate practical performances in mind, they must have been scraped together from any available singers (and maybe instrumentalists) in the Catholic households secretly celebrating masses at this time. Jackman and Kerman both cite interesting evidence of this practice, though dating from somewhat earlier (1586):

…The place [a Berkshire country house] was most suited to our work and ministrations, not merely for the reason that it was remote and had a congenial household, but also because it possessed a chapel, set aside for the celebration of the Church’s offices. The gentleman was also a skilled musician, and had an organ and other musical instruments and choristers, male and female, members of his household. During these days it was just as if we were celebrating an uninterrupted Octave of some great feast. Mr Byrd, the very famous English musician and organist, was among the company…

Byrd, then, was obviously willing to accept an element of makeshift. But if he had an ideal performance in mind, what was it like? Did he keep forever in his mind the rich sonority of the Lincoln Cathedral choir of his youth—a choir which in 1535 had as many as sixty members, boys and men? Or the sound of the Chapel Royal choir, which, at full strength, numbered twelve boys and thirty-two men? On the other hand, might he have looked rather to the modest forces and less reverberant acoustic of madrigal performances for his soundideal? The music, I believe, supports elements of both contentions. Some pieces such as Solve iubente Deo, Gaudeamus omnes and Laudibus in sanctis, with their intricate and fast-moving textures, have a decidedly madrigalian aspect and seem to call for clarity and slenderness. Others, such as the solemnly homophonic Emendemus in melius invite a fuller, richer sound. For this recording, the Cambridge Singers numbered twenty-eight voices: five adult female first sopranos, five adult female second sopranos, five female altos and one male alto, six tenors, and six basses. Tempting as it might have been to reduce forces for the ‘madrigalian’ pieces, this would have created anomalies of its own: in Solve iubente Deo, for instance, intricate polyphony is found side by side with massive homophonic alleluias. The guiding principle adopted has been to aim for textural clarity in complex passages, while allowing a natural increase of vocal sonority in homophonic passages. A cappella performance was opted for, though many other possibilities involving instrumental doubling and/or substitution would have been historically likely, especially if madrigal performance practice is taken as one of Byrd’s precedents.

Pitch remains a controversial issue in the performance of all Renaissance music, though Byrd’s penchant for wide-ranging alto, tenor and bass parts (the altos often low and the tenors high) tends to dictate within a semitone or two the practical pitch for a modern mixed choir: Byrd seems to have written his inner voice parts for male singers having an extended range of tenor-plus-alto, an extinct breed nowadays.

Text pronunciation has recently opened up as a topic of debate in Renaissance music, both Latin and vernacular. Despite evidence that Byrd’s singers would not have sung Italianate Latin, it has been adopted for this recording as being an acceptable lingua franca for modern singers and listeners, its bright, clear vowels and crisp consonants being undeniably helpful in articulating the often complex music. Modern English has likewise been unashamedly adopted: it avoids a minefield of speculation about the ‘authentic’ pronunciation of Byrd’s English, and, more importantly in terms of the purpose of this recording, it avoids the possible erection of a barrier between the music and a listener’s concentration on its meaning. Finally, the interpretative principles we have generally adopted rest on the assumption that Byrd’s use of the relatively abstract, impersonal pre-Reformation motet form was irreversibly changed by his personality and post-Reformation consciousness: his aim to write music ‘framed to the life of the words’, articulated on the title page of his Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets of 1611, informed his motet writing also, resulting in music whose often intense and passionate expressiveness is contained within disciplined, ‘classic’ structures of great variety and resource. Every Byrd motet is different; most have a strong individual character springing out of the text; some are more like madrigals than motets, calling for brisk, dance-like tempos; others are grave and solemn. It is a measure of the greatest of Byrd’s church music (and here, parallels with Bach spring to mind) that no performance can ever capture all that it has to offer, because some of its qualities are mutually exclusive: grandeur and intimacy, complexity and clarity, liturgical objectivity and personal expressiveness. Yet Byrd’s own implicit acceptance of radically different kinds of performance gives encouragement to his interpreters not to pursue slavishly the Will-o’-the-wisp of authenticity: but rather to seek the expressive core of each piece and to draw it out—a joyous task when his structures are so lucid, his voice-writing so expert and rewarding to sing, and the emotional power and conviction of his writing so vivid and compelling to performer and listener alike.

John Rutter 1989

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