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ROBERT HUGILL asks some questions
about the music of William Byrd


What sound do you think of when you listen to the Byrd masses; an English cathedral choir (men and boys with male altos), a more continental choral sound (men and boys with boy altos); a mixed voice choir such as the Tallis scholars; a full choral sound or one voice to a part? More to the point, what sound was Byrd thinking of when he wrote the masses? This has always fascinated me when singing the masses as they do not easily fit a mixed voice SATB choir. In the version of the four-part mass that we sing at Latin Mass at St Mary's Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea, London, the mass is in A flat, a tone lower than printed. So the bass part stretches up to a high F, the alto part stretches down to low F plus altos and tenors are often required to act as two equal parts, crossing frequently, even though altos are down in their boots and the tenors up at the top of their range. Did Byrd compose with a particular group in mind, or are these simply masses of the mind; music from a genius ignoring the constraints of ordinary performance? Before leaping to too many conclusions, it may be useful to consider some of the historical background to the works.

Byrd was a Roman Catholic in protestant England, with a post at court. But from the 1570s the authorities began to clamp down on Catholics. Like many Catholic families, Byrd probably regarded the attendance of Anglican Church services as necessary, relying on his wife to keep the family honour by remaining devotedly Roman Catholic. From 1577 his wife and family came under scrutiny; Catholic acquaintances came under intense persecution and from 1581 the Byrd household was regarded as suspiciously 'papist'. Byrd came under investigation himself and in 1588 his wife and two daughters were pronounced outlaws. Catholic peers and the Attorney-General intervened on his behalf and finally in 1592 the Queen herself appears to have ordered the authorities to halt their harassment.

During all this, Byrd continued his work at court and continued to publish Latin sacred music. He almost certainly had some sort of immunity from the Queen; a document relating to this is referred to by his son in the next century. To us this all seems very bizarre; as if an American popular entertainer, at the height of the McCarthy prosecutions, was a well known communist but was not prosecuted due to his popularity with the American President.

Byrd, together with Thomas Tallis, had been granted a monopoly on printing music. The two published a volume of Cantiones Sacrae in 1575 and Byrd went on to publish two more volumes in 1589 and 1591. These are substantial works for mainly five-voice vocal ensemble setting Latin texts. Though Byrd set sacred and Biblical texts, these are not liturgical works. There is some indication that liberal Protestants regarded them as a form of vocal chamber music. But we are coming to understand that Byrd's choice of texts was frequently geared up to giving coded messages of support to the Roman Catholics.

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Copyright © 1 January 2004 Robert Hugill, London UK


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