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William Byrd (1539/40-1623)

Mass for five voices & other works

The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park (director) Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: June 2022
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: June 2023
Total duration: 66 minutes 13 seconds

In a selection of motets woven affectingly throughout the glorious five-part Mass, The Gesualdo Six perfectly captures all the power and tenderness of Byrd’s compositional voice.




‘Other ensembles have marked the Byrd anniversary with celebratory, large-scale offerings; The Gesualdo Six opt for the five-voice Mass, framed by penitential motets. The last and most richly scored of Byrd’s Masses offers perhaps the greatest scope for interpretation, with shifts and contrasts of texture to the fore, encompassing both two-voice writing and opulent chordal statements. It is a special strength of this recording that The Gesualdo Six sound pellucid and grand and yet intimate, as though combining two approaches. That’s down to a sound recording that feels very closely miked … and of course—almost needless to say by now—to the wonderful blend of sound the singers achieve. These qualities come through especially strongly in Circumdederunt me, whose special ending (or, rather, the minute or so preceding it) is a highlight; so is the expressive opening out that the singers bring to the phrase ‘dolores mortis’’ (Gramophone)

‘Their sound is so intensely beautiful, perfectly tuned and resonanced: the way the vocal lines unfold in Byrd’s Mass for five voices, and the way they control the final flowering of the Agnus Dei, is beautiful to hear, quietly ecstatic. It’s a well-made programme—you get the movements of the Mass interwoven with Byrd’s motets and it makes an excellent four hundredth anniversary for him’ (BBC Record Review)

‘Pure in tone, intonation impeccable, the Gesualdo Six sing with precision and fluency, every line of polyphony audible. The Sixteen, the Tallis Scholars, Winchester Cathedral Choir and others have made top recordings of this repertoire. The chamber scale of the Gesualdo Six creates an authentic intimacy for works that might well have risked the lives of those who performed it’ (The Guardian)

‘Interweaving Byrd's Mass for five voices, which dates from the mid-1590s, with a handful of the composer's motets (Ave verum corpus and Circumdederunt me among them), this beautifully sung and recorded disc captures supremely well the stillness at the heart of the Mass, which was written for secret Catholic worship during the reign of Elizabeth I’ (The Sunday Times)

‘The Gesualdo Six sounds more apt and atmospheric and their reduced number better suits the simpler, more direct means of communication Byrd favours here as opposed to the more florid, 'continental' mode of his European contemporaries … the homogeneity of the group is impeccable and the contrast between those passages in the mass where Byrd reduces or changes the number of voices involved and when the full consort of six sings together in full voice is very apparent’ (MusicWeb International)» More

«William Byrd et sa Mass for five voices concentrent la dernière fournée des Gesualdo Six. La formation chambriste masculine d’Owain Park donne à l’oeuvre un aspect discret, intime, sans doute en adéquation avec le caractère secret qu’elle revêtait—l’époque était très hostile au catholicisme dont cette messe et son auteur se réclament. Dans les motets glissés en complément, les entrelacs harmoniques de l’Ave verum et l’expressivité stupéfiante du Circumdederunt qui captent l’attention, offrant un visage plus complexe de Byrd, à l’image de leur écriture contrapuntique» (Diapason, France)

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William Byrd was born into a country tearing itself apart. In 1540, around the time of Byrd’s birth, King Henry VIII had just about finished his dismantling of England’s monasteries and convents, reminders of which exist in ruins around the country today. The Latin Mass was outlawed and substituted with a pared-down service, now in the vernacular. Writing music in a pre-Reformation style was a dangerous business, afforded only to those who courted royal favour.

This was perhaps not the easiest time to navigate a career as a composer working in religious circles as a recusant Catholic. Yet Byrd was clever. He chose texts with heterodox meanings, such as ‘gallows texts’—Latin psalm verses uttered by priests about to be martyred—which described overcoming opponents in order to liberate (an allegorical) Jerusalem. Such texts were later allowed by the Church under Elizabeth I, who retained a fondness for elaborate ritual.

At the heart of the collection of works on this album is Byrd’s Mass for five voices, probably the last of a set of three Masses he composed after his move from the Chapel Royal in London to Catholic hibernation in Stondon Massey, Essex. While the Mass text is ritual Latin, the music is deeply intertwined with the motets he wrote, many of which were composed with ‘notes as a garland to adorn certain holy and delightful phrases of the Christian rite’, as Byrd wrote in the preface to his second book of Gradualia (1607). Here we have selected a number of motets which complement the thematic, tonal and textural material of the Mass.

Many of us grew up performing these works in churches and chapels around the UK, and it was a joy to record this music in All Hallows, Gospel Oak, the construction of which was completed some 280 years after Byrd’s death. While we could have chosen a more intimate, secluded venue to recreate the circumstances for which Byrd found himself composing, in preparing this music for record we found ourselves wanting to take the music off the page, released from the baggage of its creation, and to enjoy the full expressive potential of the writing. These Latin works are all triumphant statements of belief, exhibiting great power and tenderness, and all with a degree of contentment despite the tribulations surrounding their creation. We hope this comes across in our performances—both live and on disc—and look forward to discovering more of Byrd’s compositions throughout our careers.

Byrd’s first book of Gradualia, published in 1605 during the rule of James I, is an overtly Catholic collection of motets based on the Propers of the Mass (liturgical texts that vary from day to day according to the calendar). Contained within is perhaps Byrd’s best-loved composition, Ave verum corpus, which was written for the Feast of Corpus Christi and celebrates the mystic nature of bread and wine at communion. This is Byrd at his most intimate, writing in just four parts. Notwithstanding the gorgeous harmonic invention exhibited in the opening statement, the music seems to oscillate continually around similar posts, almost creating a harmonic figure of eight as it twists and turns. A similar quality is apparent in the vocal texture; the voices often begin phrases together, before briefly branching off, only to reconvene—the image we felt most closely resembled this was that of a congregation and priests jointly bowing their heads in prayer. Byrd selectively uses dissonance to tease out a pungency from the text. Take ‘miserere mei’ (‘have mercy on me’), a section delivered twice in the work, in which voice after voice claws upwards, occasionally clashing with others mid-flight: beguiling in its simplicity, yet with all the hallmarks of Byrd’s compositional inventiveness, a potpourri of harmonic, melodic, textural and structural devices is at play here.

In concert we’d usually sing Ave verum corpus from a distance—perhaps a side chapel or gallery—before using a piece such as Afflicti pro peccatis nostris to introduce the full consort to the audience. Here singers join one by one, each voice beginning with the chant-inspired melody. The full chant is embedded in the fourth voice, forming a cantus firmus around which Byrd effortlessly weaves a six-part texture. One element that fascinates us as singers is Byrd’s attention to structure. This piece, like many of his extended motets (including Tristitia et anxietas, which we will explore later), is split into two parts: the longer first section is focused on pain, suffering and tribulation; the second is shorter, but in a more optimistic vein, offering a glimpse at the promise of delivery from the pervasive ‘evils’.

As mentioned above, Byrd’s Mass for five voices was probably the last of the three settings he saw published between 1592 and 1595. During this time he moved away from the capital, and perhaps composed this music to be sung, at great personal risk, by small gatherings of recusants in domestic chapels. To aid concealment, even the printing style of Thomas East’s publication of the three Masses was deliberately covert, with the collection appearing in undated editions and without title pages.

The Kyrie is short, becoming less melismatic and more conversational as it develops, and thereby implying a certain urgency of tone and communication. Throughout the Mass, movements begin with a similar opening motif before heading in their own direction. In the Gloria, a trio delivers this melodic gambit before the full five-part texture arrives. Byrd constantly varies the number of voices, a technique which gives the work a chamber-like intricacy and closeness. This also emphasizes his use of the full consort at new sections, such as ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ (track 5, 0'56) or ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ (track 6, 1'45). Take the full arrival at the local major towards the end of ‘Jesu Christe’ (track 5, 1'49), followed by the sparser ‘Domine Deus’, delivered with an unprepared shift in tonality and pressing suspensions: harmonic and textural contrast are here employed to striking effect. A particularly joyful moment is the upward ascent to ‘altissimus’ (track 6, 2'00), which then cascades downwards as if imitating a great arch or vaulting—Byrd can’t resist a nod to works such as Vigilate, which take on the almost madrigalian challenge of bringing the words to life through music.

Yet one might feel that the overall picture is more restrained and less florid than contemporaneous European settings; opulence is traded for a directness of communication. This is felt most keenly in the Credo, written in such a way as to suggest a group in conversation rather than one celebrating the core doctrine of its religion through music. While emphasis is placed on ‘de Deo vero’ (track 9, 1'28) and ‘Et unam sanctam catholicam’ (track 11, 1'24) by elongating the phrases with glorious melismas, the piece comes alive most when the chatty, informal nature of the syllabic vocal writing combines with harmonic mastery to create a crescendo of colour; listen to the propulsive ‘cum gloria’ entries (track 10, 2'42) which whip up and enliven the tutti ‘vivos et mortuos’ that follows.

I remember singing the Sanctus and Benedictus as a treble at my parish church in Bristol. While I didn’t really understand what I was singing or why, I remember being struck by the awesome beauty of these two movements: the way the Sanctus stretches towards the heavens in its opening shapes, expanding and constantly evolving; listening to the ‘back row’ gear themselves up for the long, scalic phrases at ‘gloria tua’ (track 15, 0'12); quietly cheering on whomever was chosen to sing the beginning of the Benedictus as a solo; and revelling in the fact we got to sing the joyful ‘Osanna’ not once but twice. Later, I wrote a musical reflection on these two movements called Upheld by stillness, which remains one of the compositions I feel most attached to.

The way in which the vocal forces gradually expand in the Agnus Dei recalls the petitioning clauses found in motets that Byrd contributed to the 1575 Cantiones sacrae. First three, then four, and finally all five voices are brought together through the textual repetition. The movement is a beautiful conclusion to the work, providing both a summary of the music heard elsewhere in the Mass, and wonderful invention at the closing statements of ‘dona nobis pacem’.

Tristitia et anxietas, from Byrd’s 1589 Cantiones sacrae, adapts words from the Book of Lamentations 5: 17. From the bold opening gesture, in which the voices intone repetitions of ‘Tristitia’, we feel almost stuck in time as the harmony struggles to move on. It’s a compelling setting, and the imitative counterpoint that Byrd employs at moments like ‘in dolore’ (track 7, 2'42) acts more like an intensifier than simply a repetitive tool. The overall structure is reminiscent of Afflicti, with the prima pars expressing sadness, despondency and despair, before the secunda pars (‘Sed tu Domine’, track 8) offers a more hopeful vision.

The shortest motet we have included here, Byrd’s 1605 setting of the Ave Maria, is perhaps a little more doleful than might be expected from a work beginning ‘Hail Mary’. It almost feels as if the composer is holding a reverential ‘image’ at arm’s length, luring us to touch the painting behind the barrier, but allowing us only a fleeting glimpse. The closing ‘Alleluia’ (track 13) is particularly reserved, starting in the top voice as if gently suspended above.

Circumdederunt me (1591) is a much more expressive work, setting a text of the ‘gallows’ type mentioned earlier (Psalm 114: 3-4), and exhibits a turbulent harmonic landscape which circles back round to the same chords through ever more elaborate progressions. The imagery is more vivid: hear the drooping figure at ‘dolores mortis’ (‘The sorrows of death’, track 17, 0'26), and the pleading surges at ‘invocavi’ (3'00). Elsewhere, the text is set mostly syllabically, using repetition to energize and focus the narrative, such as at ‘O Domine’ (‘O Lord’, 3'30). In the somewhat strange, even anti-climactic ending, the music fades away, seemingly off into the distance, as if it were all a dream.

To conclude this album, we have chosen two of Byrd’s earlier works, contextualizing the Mass and later motets by a composer whose music pleased Elizabeth I, herself a music-lover and keyboardist who eschewed the more extreme facets of Puritanism. Emendemus in melius comes from the 1575 collection of Cantiones sacrae co-authored by Byrd and Tallis, and sets a Matins Responsory for Ash Wednesday. Here we perform in the bittersweet key of E flat minor (transposed down a major third from the original), giving a sense of warmth despite the harmonic tension. Byrd keeps the voices reciting largely together, with moments of divergence used to propel the text forwards. Unlike the personal plea for deliverance at the end of Circumdederunt me (‘libera animam meam’; ‘free my soul’), Emendemus culminates with repetitions of ‘libera nos’ (‘free us’), the plight extended to all those suffering persecution.

Continuing with the Lenten theme, we conclude with Byrd’s Lamentations, probably composed during his time at Lincoln in the 1560s. In writing this work, Byrd followed in the footsteps of a number of English composers who had set verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, thereby sustaining a tradition which showcased a little Elizabethan nostalgia for Catholicism. He would later return to the Lamentations texts to compose motets such as Tristitia. The present work oscillates between two musical moods: a florid, reverential style for the Hebrew letters (Heth, Teth and Jod), and a direct, conversational tone for the verses. The piece is bookended by longer opening and closing sections (‘De lamentatione’ and ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’)—two pillars which give the work an epic feeling. Piecing together the sources that survive in Oxford and Tenbury, we are left with an incomplete voice part (the tenor, or second voice up from the bottom) in three places: the opening statement, and at ‘Teth’ and ‘Jod’. It was an interesting experiment to reconstruct these missing notes; I aimed to follow Byrd’s example, adhering to stylistic conventions of the time, while occasionally providing moments of tension and colour.

Owain Park © 2023

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