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:
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.