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William Byrd published three sets of Latin-texted motets, neatly running of his composing output into three phases. His earliest publication, jointly with Thomas Tallis in 1575, is principally of technical rather than musical interest, and none of these motets is presented in this recording. All of those performed here come from the two books of Cantiones Sacrae (1589/91) and the two books of Gradualia (1605/07). The motets from Cantiones Sacrae tend to be longer, more architectural pieces; although they were not designed for specific occasions, their texts and moods allow them to fit comfortable into a yearly cycle. Gradualia was a working compendium of pieces for all the feasts of the church’s year: its publication was an act of political subversion; its dedications - to the Earl of Northumberland and Lord Petre - a chance for Byrd to acknowledge the support of his powerful Catholic patrons (John Bossy, in The English catholic Community 1570-1850, London, 1975, refers to such patrons as part of a system of “seigneurial Catholicism” which proved impossible for Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant zealots to eradicate).

To publish church music with Latin texts at all during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I was a risky business. The Roman Catholic religion was outlawed; prosecution, fines, imprisonment and public executions of Catholics were common. It was a period when “Byrd, his family and his servants were repeatedly convicted of recusancy, when his house and houses of his friends were searched, and when he was associating with Catholic missionaries who risked, and in some cases suffered, death for their beliefs.” (John Harley, William Byrd, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, Aldershot, 1997, p228). Latin texts were tolerated at Cathedrals and the Chapels Royal (where it was assumed that they would be understood), but they were not encouraged: no-one besides Byrd seems to have written much in Latin after the accession of Queen Elizabeth I. His Cantiones Sacrae could possibly have been intended for court use, but there can be no doubt that Gradualia were destined for private Catholic chapels only.

The drama and danger of Byrd’s age seem a world away from the rights-based security of our own but, listened to with discerning ears, Byrd’s music connects us to it (Those interested in a vivid and involving account of Byrd’s times will enjoy the relevant chapters of Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (Vol. 1), London, 2000, pp274-395). Byrd as a man and a musician appeals strongly to us today: he was a subversive, able to survive in a political world (Byrd is perhaps similar to Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester (Byrd’s friend and the dedicatee of the Cantiones Sacrae of 1589), whom Queen Elizabeth described as having “reconciled what she thought inconsistent, a stiff papist, to a good subject”, Harley, p77); he had firm beliefs and stuck to them. We recognise his genius by rehabilitating his music to its natural home, the cathedrals and greater churches of our land. Use of this music within church services puts back the dimension that can be lacking in the concert hall or recording studio.

These motets (the word “motet” is used rather loosely here to mean a Latin-texted sacred piece) present an astonishing variety of forms, textures and colours. In his choice of forms Byrd ranges from the multi-sectional respond, harking back to the votive antiphon of a century earlier (tracks 1, 2, 11 and 14), through the homophonic motet typical of continental contemporaries such as Lassus (tracks 4, 8 and 23), to short liturgical pieces that created a new style of vocal chamber music (e.g. Tracks 5, 7, 15 and 19).

Byrd’s use of texture develops through his works, but also depends on the number of voices. In his earlier works his counterpoint was rather rigid, the individual musical ideas being relatively long (examples of this occur in O quam gloriosum, track 22, written before c1582) (Harley, p222; Joseph Kerman, The Masses and Motets of William Byrd, London, 1981, p129). Later he favoured shorter distances between the entries of successive imitative voices and the flexibility to move freely between polyphonic and homophonic writing for rhetorical purposes. Superb examples of this are heard in Civitas sancti tui (track 10) and the well known Ave verum corpus (track 19). The first two tracks on this recording make for an interesting comparison, being written in the same archaic respond form, both for five parts and to similar texts, but twenty years apart. Rorate coeli, the later of the two, is the more trimmed and efficient, making the opening points of each section of Laetentur coeli seem bare and ungainly.

Byrd chose his voice-parts carefully. The usual sixteenth-century complement, for those choirs that could afford it, was five parts, with two altos or two tenors. All of the Cantiones Sacrae motets are for five or six parts (Haec dies, track 13, is the only six-part piece recorded here), and most follow this vocal distribution. But two of them feature two treble parts, always a sign of brilliant writing in Byrd: O quam gloriosum and Laudibus in sacntis (track 22 and 23). From the Easter Gradualia Victimae paschali also features two trebles, but for a more obvious pictorial reason: they are the women who visit the tomb early on Easter morning.

Four parts for Byrd indicates serious writing, “fluid, half-homophonic rhetoric” (Kerman, p344). It is reserved for texts of special importance, here all connected with the Incarnation and Eucharist (tracks 4-6 and 18-21). We have chosen to perform many of these with reduced forces to bring out their intimacy.

Many of Byrd’s pieces are effective either for mixed choir or for men’s voices. Recent research has shown that Byrd’s choice of clefs for some of the Gradualia items indicated the possibility of a lower performing pitch, perhaps using men’s voices to compensate for the scarcity of trained boys’ voices (even the Chapel Royal had problems recruiting boys, and Byrd himself may well have been poached as a treble from Westminster Abbey) (David Skinner, “Catching the Early Byrd: ‘Wyllyam Byrd’ at Westminster”, article for the Cardinalls Musick website, 1998). Six of the tracks on this recording explore theses sonorities (3, 5, 12 and 14-16).

On first hearing Byrd’s harmony may seem stylised, indistinguishable from the sixteenth-century norm. Closer examination reveals a wealth of subtlety and nuance. In his use of dissonance, for example, he can be restrained for the sake of clarity and simplicity (the first fourteen bars of Viri Galilei contain not so much as a suspension), he can pile up suspensions for structural effect (for example the climax towards the end of Civita santi tui), or he can use dissonance for colour and emphasis. At the start of Ave verum corpus both harmony and rhythm stress the “truth” of the second word, as if emphasising the Roman Catholic belief in the sacrament as the actual body of Christ. The “transubstantiation of words into notes” (John Irving: “Penetrating the Preface to Gradualia”, Music Review, 1990, p159) illustrates Byrd’s own explanation at the start of Gradulia that to a man thinking about divine things... The most fitting measures come, I know not how, as if by their own free will”.

© Andrew Fowler

Byrd.mp3

Motets of William Byrd

PRCD 801

£10.-

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Laetentur Coeli

Rorate Coeli

Gloria tibi, Domine

O magnum mysterium

Ecce advenit

Senex puerum portabat (à4)

Senex puerum portabat (à5)

Miserere mei, Deus

Ne Irascaris, Domine

Civitas sancti Tui

Victimae paschali

Terra tremuit

Haec dies quam fecit Dominus

Viri Galilei

Alleluia! Ascendit Deus

Veni, Sancte Spiritus

Non vos relinquam orphanos

Ego sum panis vivus

Ave verum corpus

Sacerdotes Domini

Felix es, sacra virgo Maria

O quam gloriosum

Laudibus in Sanctis