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William BYRD (c1540 - 1623)
Singing in secret - Clandestine Catholic music
The Marian Consort/Rory McCleery
Rec. 2019, Crichton Collegiate Church, Crichton (Midlothian), UK
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Outhere

When under Henry VIII the English church broke away from Rome, the religious ceremonies and rituals changed. The elaborate Latin music which was common at the time, was increasingly replaced by music in the vernacular, often technically less demanding and syllabic in nature. This process was intensified under Henry's son Edward VI. When he died at the age of 15, he was succeeded by his half-sister Mary. As she was Roman Catholic, she tried to restore the old Church's dominance, and in the wake of this the Latin liturgy was restored as well. But she only ruled for five years, and after her death in 1558 she was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth. Under her rule the religious balance shifted again, and as a result the Latin liturgy was substituted by a liturgy in the vernacular. The Book of Common Prayer was the symbol of this change.

For composers this liturgical turmoil was not easy to deal with. Once Protestantism had firmly established itself under Elizabeth, the position of those composers who remained true to their Roman Catholic conviction became rather delicate. It is not always clear what exactly the religious convictions of composers were, but in the case of William Byrd there can be little doubt. He regularly landed at the wrong side of the law when he was absent from services of the Church of England. In the 1580s two attempts were made to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. They failed, and as Byrd was associated with someone who was involved in one of these plots, he was investigated and subjected to various restrictions.

Considering that for most of his life Byrd was active as a Catholic composer under the strict Protestant rule of Elizabeth, it may surprise that he not only left a large amount of music in Latin, clearly intended for the Catholic liturgy, but also that a large part of it was printed. The first of the printed editions was the collection of 34 motets, which was published in 1575, called in short Cantiones Sacrae. Both Byrd and his teacher, Thomas Tallis, contributed seventeen motets to the edition, which was the fruit of a royal patent which gave "full privilege and license unto our well-beloved servants Thomas Tallis and William Byrd". One may wonder why this privilege was given. Tallis's religious affiliation may have been not quite clear, and he was generally considered an icon of sacred music in England, but there was no doubt about Byrd's sympathies. It may well be explained from the fact that Elizabeth, a great lover of music anyway, seems to have appreciated Byrd's music. A further reason may have been his position as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.

However, there is no doubt that his Latin church music could not be performed in public services. Under Elizabeth, Catholic mass was forbidden, and worship had to take place in secret, in particular in the estates of the Catholic nobility on the countryside. If modern performers want to come close to how Byrd's Latin church music was performed in his own days, the number of singers should be reduced, and one should probably also take into account the different acoustical circumstances of the venues where his motets and masses were performed. It seems that only a few interpreters are willing to take the consequences of a strictly historical approach.

One of them is Rory McCleery, director of The Marian Consort, who, in the liner-notes to his disc "Singing in secret", mentions that there is documentation of clandestine masses being "celebrated with singing, and musicall instruments". He refers to one specific event of this kind in a remote place at the estate of some nobleman. "The gentleman was also a skilled musician, and had an organ and other musical instruments and choristers, male and female, members of his household. During these days it was just as if we were celebrating an uninterrupted Octave of some great feast. Mr Byrd, the very famous English musician and organist, was among the company..." Obviously, this is most interesting with regard to performance practice. It seems to suggest that in such private gatherings one of the basic rules of the church - that women should be silent in church - was not always observed. Whereas instruments seem to have played virtually no role in the liturgy before the Reformation, they may have been used in private worship.

However, we need to be cautious to draw too strong conclusions from these facts. First, the mentioned household did include female singers, but that in itself is no evidence that they participated in the performance of liturgical music. Second, it is mentioned that instruments were available, but that does not necessarily mean that they were actually used in the liturgy. McCleery, in his recording, observes the rather small number of singers that may have been involved in clandestine masses, but did not decide to use instruments. Moreover, it is impossible to decide which instruments may have been used. Recently, I reviewed a disc by the Capella de la Torre, in which music by Byrd was performed with loud wind instruments. The information given in the liner-notes does not make me change my mind that this is historically very implausible. If instruments were used, these were likely a small organ and viols. The latter were common at the time, and also used in services in the Church of England, for instance the Chapel Royal.

As the title of this disc indicates, the programme focuses on music connected to private Catholic worship. There can be little doubt that this goes for the three masses Byrd composed. These were published without title page, date or name of the printer, for safety reasons. The Missa 4 vocum is the core of the programme, and is the most obvious token of Byrd's Catholic faith. However, the other pieces have also been selected to document this. No fewer than four items are connected to All Saints, which had a special meaning for Catholics at the time, "not least because of their rather immediate relationship with martyrdom and also the precarious nature and small size of their community." This brings us to an interesting aspect of Byrd's oeuvre. It has been suggested that the fact that he set many texts of a rather sombre nature was inspired by the trials and tribulations of Catholics at the time. That can certainly not be excluded, but we should not ignore that many of these texts were part of the liturgy and were also set by other composers in England and at the continent. The main exception, and probably the most personal piece in the programme, may be Infelix ego, a setting of a meditation on Psalm 50 (51), Miserere mei Deus, by the Florentine preacher Girolamo Savonarola, who was executed in 1498. This text was set by other composers as well, such as Willaert and Lassus, but was not part of the liturgy and Byrd may have felt that this text expressed his own feelings or that of the Catholic community.

The programme has been put together in such a way that one gets the idea of a Mass, as the parts of the mass ordinary are separated by motets, but this is not a liturgical reconstruction. Miserere mei Deus, which is a crucial text in the Catholic liturgy - as it is one of the seven penitential psalms sung during Lent - and may also symbolize the feelings of Catholics in Byrd's time, embraces the programme: its opening is Byrd's setting of the first verse of this psalm and Infelix ego brings it to a close. The result is a captivating journey through Byrd's Latin church music from a historical perspective, as it sheds light on the precarious position of Catholics in Elizabethan England. The Marian Consort consists of nine singers, performing in different combinations. It delivers fine performances, in which those moments in which Byrd illustrates the text - showing the influence of contemporary Italian madrigals - come off perfectly. It is regrettable that some singers, in particular in the upper regions, allow themselves a bit of vibrato. That is not desirable, but it does not really spoil my appreciation of this recording.

Johan van Veen

Previous review: John Quinn

Miserere mei a 5 [3:04]
Gaudeamus omnes a 5 [5:10]
Missa 4 vocum:
Kyrie [2:00]
Gloria [5:54]
Timete Dominum a 5 [4:28]
Missa 4 vocum:
Credo [8:12]
Ave Maria a 5 [1:58]
Laetentur caeli a 5 [3:34]
Missa 4 vocum:
Sanctus & Benedictus [3:40]
Justorum animae a 5 [2:29]
Missa 4 vocum:
Agnus Dei [2:51]
Deo gratias a 4 [0:41]
Beati mundo corde a 5 [3:01]
Infelix ego a 6 [13:02]

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