No sooner do I prepare a post on the link to my StAR article on "Reading Between the Line(r Note)s: Tudor Church Music and Revisionist History" but I read about this new recording of William Byrd's three Masses, composed for five, four, and three voices, from The Choir of Westminster Cathedral (the Catholic Westminster in London). The purpose of the recording is to highlight the significance of these Masses in both the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries:
A new recording of the most perfect of Tudor masterpieces, Byrd’s three Mass-settings, from the cradle of their nineteenth-century rehabilitation. Westminster Cathedral Choir is enjoying a vintage period, and here we hear its trademark sound in all its glory: unfettered, natural singing from the trebles underpinned by warm yet clear tones from the gentlemen.
This recording celebrates Byrd’s Catholic Masses in two ways simultaneously. Most obviously, it addresses great and timeless works, which themselves address great and timeless liturgical texts. But at the same time it reminds us that the revival of Byrd’s Masses in the late nineteenth century was pioneered by Roman Catholic church choirs. This is a point worth pondering. Since the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, the choirs of England’s Protestant cathedrals and college chapels have had their own distinctive musical repertory, which has flourished and grown in unbroken tradition. The anthems and services of Thomas Tallis, for instance, have never fallen from cathedral use; they have been the epitome of Choral Evensong and Eucharist for more than four centuries. This Anglican repertory, however, is not what Roman Catholic worship requires. When major Catholic choral foundations were established in late Victorian and Edwardian England, at Downside Abbey, the Brompton Oratory, and above all at Westminster Cathedral, there was a quest for new and more relevant music; and it was at these places that William Byrd’s three Latin Masses were revived. Hence the pertinence of this recording; it celebrates that Catholic revival no less than it celebrates the works themselves.
As John Milsom writes in the liner notes (!):
. . . William Byrd, if he could hear these performances, would be amazed, for they are not at all what he would have envisaged. In the 1590s, when his Masses were composed, there were no Catholic church choirs in England, and he never imagined them being sung proudly and publicly in cathedrals for all to hear. Few hard facts survive about the kinds of performances Byrd’s Catholic works received in his lifetime, but we can speculate with a fair degree of confidence. In the age of the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot, England’s Roman Catholic community celebrated Mass covertly behind closed doors, taking pains not to be found out and punished or fined. Their secret services took place in rooms hastily converted into chapels, led by priests who led surreptitious lives. If music was used, then it was sung and played by whoever came safely to hand: family members, invited guests and trusted servants. By definition, then, Byrd’s Masses are really chamber music, not choral repertory, and it was never Byrd’s intention that they should be sung in the resonant ambience of a great church by a choir such as that of Westminster Cathedral.
Grand choral polyphony was, however, the stuff of Byrd’s main career; for he lived a double life. In public, Byrd was the towering member of Queen Elizabeth’s chapel royal, a choir that served monarch, court, and the swarm of overseas diplomats and visitors that mingled with them. This choir typically sang in the grand chapels of the queen’s palaces, such as Westminster, Greenwich and Richmond, and on occasions it also sang in more public places, even out of doors. It was for this choir, wearing his public hat as England’s foremost musician, that Byrd sang, composed and played the organ, and it was therefore with the Chapel Royal in mind that Byrd composed his Great Service, a work of the greatest splendour, setting texts from the Book of Common Prayer for use at Mattins, Eucharist and Evensong. But this was only one side of Byrd’s life. In private, he moved in the network of England’s Catholic community, whose religious beliefs he shared, and for whom he also wrote music—initially motets, but latterly also works for liturgical use, such as the three Masses and, later, the impressive cycle called Gradualia. As Byrd grew older his allegiances shifted, and he spent less time in London and more time with the Catholics in rural Essex, where he set up home. But his retreat never became a rift. Up to his death Byrd remained loyal to his queen [and king; Byrd died during the reign of James I] and his country, and he was tolerated at court even by those who knew of his double life. . . .
Read the rest here. The cover art is described thusly: The Madonna delle Ombre (1450, detail) by Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro) (c1387-1455) Museo di San Marco dell'Angelico, Florence / Bridgeman Art Library, London