Sunday, September 17, 2023

William Byrd's Three Masses on the BBC's "Listening Service"

We are celebrating the 400th anniversary of William Byrd's death on July 4, 1623 throughout this year. Of course, it's being celebrated mostly in England!

The BBC has published a Composer of the Month article on his life and times in their classical music magazine, Tom Service has commented particularly on his Three Masses on his BBC program, Stile Antico has released a new CD, his works were performed at the Proms in Londonderry, and the Latin Mass Society in England is sponsoring a Byrd Festival with his Masses and works from the Gradualia including in the celebration of Mass at Corpus Christi Maiden Lane and other churches, etc., etc.

What's so good about the Latin Mass Society's effort is described in their program for the Festival:

This year, 2023, witnesses the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Byrd, one of England’s greatest Renaissance composers. The Latin Mass Society is marking the occasion with a Byrd 400 Festival ofsacred music. From September 2023 the Southwell Consort, under the direction of Dominic Bevan, will perform music from Byrd’s Masses, Cantiones Sacrae, and sacred motets, as well as his organ music. 

Byrd’s sacred music was composed for the Roman Catholic Mass during a time when English Catholics faced religious persecution. Despite the clandestine climate in which it was composed, much of Byrd’s polyphony is sumptuous. It represents the last artistic flowering of an English liturgical tradition almost stamped out at the Reformation. 

The words, chant and ritual actions of the traditional Latin Mass were ancient in Byrd’s own day, and they have remained essentially unchanged ever since. It is within this context that this festival of sacred music will take place, presenting Byrd’s work in the original liturgical context for which it was composed.

In his "Listening Service" program, Tom Service makes a suggestion about these three Masses--meaning the ordinary text of the Mass, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Angus Dei--were integrated into the celebration of the secret Masses for which the works were intended. He notes the presence of the "custos" mark at the end of each part, suggesting that it means that the Mass parts were sung as the Mass was being "spoken". Service suggests that the Masses lasted as long as the Byrd Mass settings, around 20 minutes.

But I wonder about that, because not all Masses include all the parts of the ordinary, depending on the feast or feria being celebrated. In the Traditional Latin Mass, a Missa Cantata is sung/chanted by the priest, not spoken, and not all parts of the Mass, like the Roman Canon, are audible to the congregation even at a Missa Cantata; a Low Mass is a mostly silent Mass and usually these parts of the Mass are not sung. (That's assuming that the Mass revisions that Pope Pius V approved in 1570 for the Roman Missal, the Masses Catholic missionary priests were offering in England at the time Byrd was a Catholic and wrote these three Masses, are comparable to the Missa Cantatas and Low Masses I attend today.)

The Masses Byrd attended in Stondon Massey in Essex were celebrated under duress because it was illegal to say or attend Mass and everyone there, especially the priest, was in great danger, and so Service thinks these 20 minute Masses would have been practical, safe, and even politic, under the circumstances--to sum it up, serviceable.

As John Milsom wrote in the cover notes to the 2013/2014 CD of Byrd's Three Masses and the Ave Verum Corpus depicted above:

. . . 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. . . .

Milsom comments on Byrd's Court career and the Anglican service music he wrote there and then states:

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: James I from 1603 to 1623!] and his country, and he was tolerated at court even by those who knew of his double life.

He continues the discussion by contrasting the differences between the way Byrd sets words to music in the Anglican and Catholic works, noting that Catholic works "savour their words more meditatively, and speak with a more personal voice." (Please read the rest there.)

When Charles Cole reviewed the CD from the Westminster Cathedral Choir for the New Liturgical Movement website, he noted that Martin Baker had departed from the usual method of recording the choir:

It was perhaps partly in deference to these original performances in Tudor times that Martin Baker, the Master of Music, decided to make quite a radical change to the way the choir was recorded. Most of the Cathedral Choir’s recordings are made in the Apse, the usual liturgical singing position of the choir, however for this recording, the choir stood on the Sanctuary in a large square facing inwards towards Martin Baker, who stood at the centre. The effect is very different, both intimate and powerful, with a noticeable change in the acoustics. There is a heightened sense of dynamic range, with diminuendi of extraordinary control which taper into nothingness. And although this music will be very familiar to anyone in regular proximity to a traditional Catholic choir, there is a real sense of a new experience when listening to this recording.

I guess the only way we could come closer to hearing this music as Byrd and the congregation heard it would be to record an amateur choir in a small space!

Finally, I do have to make one comment about the "Composer of the Month" article from the June issue of BBC Music Magazine: Andrew Stewart writes that "Byrd risked punishment to compose sublime settings of outlawed Latin texts, especially during the 1580s when Jesuit missionaries from the continent were being burned at the stake . . ." (p. 60) 

No, they were being hanged, drawn, and quartered!

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