Where late the sweet birds sang: Latin Music from
Tudor England William BYRD(c.1540 - 1623)
Christe qui lux es et dies [5:05] Robert WHITE(c.1538 - 1574)
Lamentations a5 [22:48] Robert PARSONS(c.1535 -
Ave Maria [4:50] William BYRD
Domine, quis habitabit [9:30] Robert PARSONS
Domine, quis habitabit [4:37] William BYRD
Quomodo cantabimus [8:35] De lamentatione [12:26] Robert WHITE
Christe qui lux es et dies (IV) [6:50]
rec. St George’s, Chesterton, Cambridge, UK, 23-26 Jan 2012.
Texts and translations included.
The title is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 in which he compares
his winter mood to ‘Bare ruin’d choirs where late
the sweet birds sang.’ Since Empson’s Seven Types
of Ambiguity this has usually been taken to refer to the
remains of the abbeys which were dissolved under Henry VIII
and which had mostly fallen into ruin by his time, the stone
having been removed for building. The singing of the sweet birds
relates to the plainer style, setting English not Latin words,
which had replaced the ‘late’ (former) elaborate
polyphony of the earlier half of the sixteenth century.
The interpretation is not universally accepted - some prefer
to regard the image as one of avenues of leafless trees in winter
- and, indeed, given the richness of Shakespeare’s imagery
it’s possible that he wanted to evoke both images. As
a peg on which to hang a short selection of Latin-texted music
from the latter half of the century, however, it will serve
About William Byrd’s loyalty to the Roman church there
can be no doubt, though his beliefs appear to have been tolerated
at court, where he composed in English and Latin for Queen Elizabeth’s
Chapel Royal. The tenor of the two texts which are included
here - how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange
land? and part of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, bewailing
the fate that has overtaken Jerusalem - shows how much he regretted
what had been lost. There is, indeed, a series of settings by
Byrd and his Catholic contemporaries that seems to have been
intended as a kind of dialogue, often on the theme of loss.
These collaborations with Palestrina, Victoria, Peter Philips
and Giovanni Gabrieli are included on a valuable and inexpensive
recording from King’s College Cambridge, directed by David
Willcocks (Classics for Pleasure 5860482). You can obtain that
King’s recording on disc for around £5 and as a
download for around £3.50 and none of the items overlap
with the new Linn recording; it’s a different manner of
singing Byrd, but well worth having.
Nor are there any overlaps between the Byrd on the new recording
and another inexpensive recording which to which I would direct
you as the starting point for anyone looking to begin a collection
of his music: The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd (Gimell
2-for-1 CDGIM208, containing the three masses, the Great Service
and a selection of shorter works in Latin and English - see
Tallis Scholars at 30).
There’s another recording which contains quomodo cantabimus?
and places it specifically within the setting of Byrd’s
Catholicism. On a collection entitled The caged Byrd
(Chandos Chaconne CHAN0609 - see October 2008 Download
Roundup) I Fagiolini pair the work with one by the continental
composer Philippe de Monte. The latter sets the first part of
that psalm (137): Super flumina Babylon, by the waters
of Babylon we sat down and wept, to which Byrd’s setting
of quomodo cantabimus? how shall we sing the Lord’s
song in a strange land, may be seen as a response - the Lord’s
song being the Latin Mass and the strange land Elizabeth’s
It’s a measure of the quality of Magnificat that I can
mention their singing of the four Byrd works on the new recordings
in the same terms as King’s and the Tallis Scholars. That
comes as no surprise in view of the number of fine recordings
that they have already made for Linn; I’m running out
of superlatives to describe them:
If Byrd’s Latin-texted music was mostly written for the
recusant community to which he belonged, it remains something
of a mystery why other composers such as Parsons and White also
composed music with Latin texts. It may be that it was intended
for the Chapel Royal, where the queen favoured a conservative
order, or for collegiate churches where Latin was permitted
if it was ‘understanded of the people’, as the Act
of Uniformity puts it. There was, as the notes in the booklet
point out, a Latin version of the Book of Common Prayer, intended
for the universities - the Eucharist from that book is still
celebrated at the start of full term in the Oxford University
church - and for those parts of Wales and Ireland where English
was not spoken. Thus it may well be that Parsons and White intended
their music for Oxford and Cambridge, or it may just be that
old habits die hard.
One such habit, the performance of the Lamentations of Jeremiah
at Mattins for the latter part of Holy Week, is perpetuated
by the settings here of both White and Byrd. Though prescribed
in the 1549 book, the 1552 and 1559 Prayer Book had moved these
readings away from Holy Week. They weren’t restored until
1662 and then only at the beginning of the week. It’s
unlikely then that either setting was for a liturgical context,
though White’s setting could have been intended as an
anthem at the end of Mattins or Evensong. Indeed, White seems
to have made something of a speciality of settings of Lamentations;
there are several other recordings of this 5-part set but there
is also a 6-part setting (sung by Gallicantus, with other music
by White on Signum SIGCD134 - review
- and a setting of the lections from Lamentations for Good Friday
on a recording of similar settings by Gesualdo, Palestrina and
Victoria sung by Nordic Voices on Chandos Chaconne CHAN0763:
Recording of the Month - review
- and November 2009 Download
Parsons’ Ave Maria seems clearly not to have been
intended for use within the Roman rite, since he sets only the
biblical greeting and omits the traditional ending in which
Mary is asked to pray for sinners, reflecting the reformers’
belief in Jesus as man’s only mediator and advocate.
What all the music here has in common is a tendency to move
away from the more florid style of polyphony that characterised
earlier Tudor church music to a one note per syllable system.
That’s common not just to English music of the period;
the Council of Trent enjoined a similar principle on composers
for the Roman rite and paradoxically Byrd’s Great Service
of music for Anglican use contains some music more elaborate
than any of the works here. Emphatically, however, less florid
does not mean less interesting.
Magnificat, who have shown themselves to be ideal interpreters
of the more elaborate style, are just at home with this plainer
music; their performances are restrained and intimate without
in any way under-valuing what they sing.
This is one of three recent Linn releases which they have kindly
provided for me in both SACD and 24/96 download format - both
the CD and SACD 2.0 layers and the download sound excellent.
An excellent release is made even more so by the first-rate
notes from Sally Dunkley, who was responsible for editing the
music here, and a further note from Philip Cave on pitch. Since
I’ve criticised some of Linn’s recent cover shots,
let me add that the one for this recording is particularly eye-catching.
There are some minor niggles about the translations: ‘you
… speak to us of the heavenly Light’ is not quite
the same as lumen beatum prædicans - giving us
a foretaste of the blessed light.
Those very minor grumbles apart, this is another triumph for
Magnificat and Linn.
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