HE FOURTH OF JULY was a momentous day in the Tappan household this year—my beloved wife turned 40 and we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of Mr. William Byrd, that greatest of English note-smiths, who, unlike so many of his age and nationality, remained true to the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith.” To mark yesterday’s occasion, Westminster Cathedral Choir (London) sang a Requiem Mass for the repose of Byrd’s soul, which included his Mass for 5 Voices alongside the Gregorian Requiem propers. Only last Sunday I was blessed to hear Mass at Westminster Cathedral, and were it not for the love I bear my wife (which I reminded her of several times yesterday), I would have extended the end of my trip to England from July 3rd to the 5th in order to be present for Byrd’s Requiem.
William Byrd, his music, and his times would provide enough fodder for a fascinating study, but such is not the purpose at hand, and for those who wish to learn more, I would recommend the excellent documentary Playing Elizabeth’s Tune: William Byrd (although beware of a certain Anglo/Protestant bias), with much of his music movingly rendered by the Tallis Scholars under the baton of Peter Phillips. For a more in depth study of Byrd and his music read A Byrd Celebration: Lectures at the William Byrd Festival, Portland, Oregon, 1998-2008.
The point I wish to make today is that Byrd’s music deserves to be heard on a much more regular basis in the English speaking world. “But why?” you ask. For good or ill, much of the best of English/American/Australian culture (and there IS much good and much to be very proud of, despite the fanatical self-flagellation of the woke guard) is Protestant in origin, and it is easy to exult second rate Catholic attempts at high culture in an effort to promote Catholicism. However, in Byrd we have a devout Catholic composer of sacred music (deeply imbued with aspects of his Catholicsm) whose works, both in depth and breadth, have never been surpassed in all the English speaking world in the subsequent four centuries (and this includes Purcell). These works need to be heard and studied if we wish to make progress in liturgical music, but where to start.
Firstly, Byrd composed only three Masses in his lifetime, appropriately monikered Mass for 3 Voices, Mass for 4 Voices and Mass for 5 Voices, according to the required vocal parts. These Masses would have been sung only in very intimate and private settings during clandestine Masses in the homes of recusant Catholic families, so it is quite appropriate to sing them with a small vocal ensemble, although they are just as beautiful sung by Westminster Cathedral.
Regarding Byrd‘s two books of Gradualia, which set to music the entire cycle of Propers of the Mass, Classical.net has the following to say,
“Following the three masses, Byrd produced his unparalled legacy in sacred choral composition the two huge volumes of “Gradualia” (1605 & 1607). These publications consist of many short pieces of liturgical music, set in verse sections, which can be combined in various ways to form liturgically accurate Propers cycles for every significant feast and votive mass of the Roman Catholic Rite. Technically, this achievement is immense – it involves setting every possible Propers verse with the appropriate chant melody, and then providing instructions for assembling each of the cycles from the relevant verses. Byrd’s invigoration by formal demands is clearly in evidence here, as well as his keen intellect in devising these pieces to fit together in such a manner. Though most of us cannot appreciate their liturgical design, the concision and clarity of the short pieces making up these books of Gradualia are impressive. These publications comprise one of the supreme testaments in Western music.
Dr. William Mahrt comments—in a paper he contributed to the above mentioned A Byrd Celebration—that Byrd’s Catholic sacred music was composed for the traditional Roman Rite, not the Sarum Rite, because the Roman Rite was the rite celebrated by the Jesuit priests (and others) who risked their lives to enter England during the Elizabethan era. As a result, our Latin Mass communities should have no difficulties adding more Byrd to their repertoire. Those in our Novus Ordo communities will just need to do a little more research to make everything work (click here to view the plan used by Westminster Cathedral in order to sing the complete Gradualia within the course of Byrd’s quatercentenary). Lastly, I should mention Byrd’s books of Cantiones Sacrae, or sacred motets.
I close with these beautiful lines from Byrd’s last will and testament, which I can only pray will be mine one day:
“First, I give and bequeath my soul to God Almighty, my creator and redeemer and preserver, humbly craving his grace and mercy for the forgiveness of all my sins and offences, past, present and to come. And yet I may live and die a true and perfect member of his holy Catholic Church without which I believe there is no salvation for me.”