Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Anglican Byrd

I just received this CD by The Cardinall's Musick of William Byrd's one great composition of Anglican church music: The Great Service. I listened to it once last night, but have to hear it again. After hearing so much of Byrd's Catholic liturgical music in Latin, this is taking some getting used to. The Great Service includes all the canticles of the Divine Office: The Benedictus, the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, and the Te Deum, plus the Kyrie and the Credo. (The CD uses these Latin (and Greek) titles even though the words for each are in English, of course.) The program also includes four psalm settings and one "Carroll for Christmas Day" ("This day Christ was born").
The liner notes conjecture a bit about the composition of this Great Service and the fact that Byrd did not have it published in his lifetime. He wrote it during what Andrew Carwood calls a difficult decade--the 1580's--when England was plunged into fear of plots within and without. Carwood comments that the decade was also a rich creative period for William Byrd, including this work. Carwood states that "The Service is the result of considerable labour and is his only significant foray into the Anglican world. The Great Service is so good, it seems extraordinary that Byrd did not publish it . . ." Carwood believes Byrd wrote The Great Service as a kind of leave-taking from Court and the Chapel, because soon after its composition (although Carwood has no precise date), Byrd moved to Stondon Massey, where he was able to safely worship in the Catholic chapel of his patron, Sir John Petre.
In fact, The Great Service wasn't discovered in the modern world until 1922, when one Edmund Fellowes found a manuscript in Durham Cathedral!
This site provides some explanation of the use of The Great Service in Anglican public prayer:
The Church of England compressed the Daily Office of the Roman (Sarum) rite into two services: Mattins and Evensong. The morning service incorporated the Catholic Matin canticles of the Venite (Psalm 95) and the Te Deum, as well as the canticle sung at Lauds – the Benedictus (Zechariah’s song from Luke). The Jublilate (Psalm 100) was set as an alternative to the Benedictus, but rarely used in the 16th century. During the Communion the Creed may be sung, though more common to sing the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Byrd set the Creed and Kyrie. The evening service comprised the Magnificat from the Roman Vespers and the Nunc Dimittis from Compline (song of Simeon also from Luke). Essentially, Anglicanism took a ‘best-of’ approach to the Catholic liturgy and created what has become and remains to this day its morning and evening worship format.

Byrd took this English service, and its restriction to simple word-painting, and created his Anglican masterpiece. He added dimension by playing with text repetition and the possibilities of a flexible double choir. The common choral set-up of Mean-Alto-Alto-Tenor-Bass was used for each choir, named Decani and Cantoris [set-up]. Tactus is organized into two choirs of 8 voices ‘ 2 of S-A-T-B for each. This gives added responsibility to our altos, who when split carry their part individually (but altos like to flex their vocal muscles anyway). But Byrd’s use of these choirs is ingenious as at times he will steal a voice from one choir to add to the texture of the other, e.g. ‘As he promised to our forefather Abraham’ in the Magnificat is sung by A-A-A-T-B, using 2 altos and 1 tenor from Decani and the 3rd alto and bass from Cantoris. He constantly shifts colour, density, and imitation of sound by playing with these possibilities, including sections sung by low voices and others by high, and the alternation of ‘full’ and ‘verse’ (solo) passages. Within the parameters of the new Anglican palate, Byrd’s composition is highly creative. He likely starting composing the work relatively early, before 1580, with the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis later, as demonstrated by their more mature, confident, and elaborate schemes.

1 comment:

  1. The Tallis Scholars have also made a recording of Byrd's Great Service which is very well sung. I wonder which would be more authentic. A cappella or with organ?