T HAS BEEN a gift to us, this year of ’23, to have been reminded of the tremendous legacy of William Byrd (d.1623). He who has been celebrated this year is universally regarded as one of the ‘big three’ of the high Renaissance masters (Palestrina, Victoria, Byrd).1 Perhaps this 400-year anniversary has come to us at just the right time, because you see, we Catholics are living in a strange and disordered world. Politics aside (this is not the forum for that), we see persecution and mistreatment of Catholics all around us, from China and Nigeria, to FBI probes and church infighting. Many see Vatican directives as singling out certain of the faithful. Entire bishops’ conferences skate precariously close to schism, while the noisy discourse on social media by self-proclaimed internet intellectuals and celebrities sinks to a kind of persecution by ugliness and name calling of their brethren. Byrd, as you know, knew persecution. Yes, he was tolerated, even lauded in the Elizabethan court, yet still, registered as a recusant. The accusation of treason, as it was called, was all around him, and was his and his family’s constant companion.
I will have more to say about Byrd in a moment. First, here is a live recording of Byrd’s SANCTUS for five voices, made during the Solemn Mass on Thursday, 22 June 2023. The celebrant was Rev. David Friel, and alongside my colleagues, I conducted the participants of Sacred Music Symposium 2023:
Here’s the direct URL link.
Byrd’s early music, both in Latin and English, surveyed the various genres available to him, from the strophic songs of English poetry to his massive and dazzling eight and nine voice Latin settings of psalms. His works in Latin were no doubt written in sympathy toward his Catholic brethren, ranging from penitential meditations to personal statements of protest, often given in code. The 1575 Cantiones Sacrae by Tallis and Byrd was even dedicated to and accepted by Queen Elizabeth, although they were titled as pieces ‘sacred only in nature because of their texts,’ a statement carefully crafted so as not to be seen as part of the Papist liturgy. But by the early 1590’s Byrd had retired from London to the countryside and become more attached to the secret Masses presided over by Jesuits from the continent. It was during these years that Byrd set out boldly to compose music specifically for the Catholic Mass, including the three settings of the Ordinary and the two volumes of the Gradualia, that astonishing collection of propers for all the major feasts and Marian celebrations of the Church. The fire of his writing, the passion and pathos, the grandeur and gravitas, the personal and profound, seep from the pages of the masses and motets, if one only knows where to look. Restraint can be mistaken for detachment.
The Byrd Masses were printed without title pages, and with no reference to a composer. It was too dangerous to do so. The five-voice Mass is from 1594-5 and is voiced for treble, alto, two tenors, and bass. Each of the movements, save the Sanctus, is based on a head motive, an original melody meant to bind the movements and serve as in the manner of a pre-existing cantus firmus. The head motive does not appear in the Sanctus; rather it utilizes a distinctive ‘call’ motive of a rising fourth, together with its more active countermelody. Byrd, ever the architect, divides the first section into two clear halves, each containing three Sanctus ‘calls.’ The thickening texture of overlapping calls and countersubjects creates an ecstatic feeling as the six-winged seraphim of heaven continually sing their praises to the Almighty. The final Sanctus cadence gives way to an uplifting by half step to the next section, the ‘Dominus Deus’ (Lord God).
The half step lift is used several times in this Mass to great effect, namely in the ‘Christe’ and the ‘Gloria.’ Byrd moves to a homophonic texture, first for four voices, then five, with the top tenor leading the way in textual polyphony with the previous four. Byrd is a master of combining various voices in an ever-changing web of textures. The ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ is a trio between Alto, Tenor I, and Bass. This paring down of voices makes this text more personal, more intimate. The melody places ‘caeli’ (heaven) on the highest pitch of the phrase, while ‘terra’ (earth) is a gentle lowering. After the ‘gloria tua,’ the ‘Osanna’ enters in full force, with Tenor II leading the way. The theme of a rising fourth is reminiscent of the opening Sanctus call. Beginning homophonically, the texture opens to a resplendent polyphonic cacophony of ‘Osannas.’ In the final cadence, the voices gather around the pedal tones held by the treble and bass.
The Benedictus gives us another trio, this time between Tenor II, Soprano, and Alto. Set at the same pitch as the Sanctus, the rising fourth motive is colored by one extra pitch to carry the second syllable of text. Most interesting in this section is the amount of time Byrd gives to each bit of text. ‘Benedictus’ is uttered only once by each voice, syllabically set, while ‘qui venit’ (who comes) is a vibrant, rising melismatic statement. Even more time is spent on ‘in nomine Domini,’ (in the name of the Lord), the focus on these texts perhaps a bit of a theological message that during this moment, the one true God is now present. Sighs and suspensions, sweet thirds and sixths, color this section. One would think that Byrd is truly in love with these forbidden words. Abruptly, as before, the Osanna returns in a burst of praise, this time led by the Tenor I.
Personal Note • The Sacred Music Symposium brings together musicians from all across the globe and with all levels of experience. Some are seasoned conductors and organists, while some have never sung a note of polyphony, and rehearsal minutes are at a premium. It is an honor to be able to introduce to them masterworks such as these, and to see the fruits of their labor.
1 Jeff Ostrowski and others will argue for Guerrero or others to be included in this company.