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We still have no clear idea of the extent of underground compositions written for use in the recusant community, but Byrd's masses would have been part of this campaign. To be useful they had to be available, hence the necessity to print them, though it is possible that they were circulating in manuscript some years before their publication. And their provision of masses for five, four or three voices was immensely practical in situations where the provision of music was ad hoc.

We know some little about the musical set up of services thanks to some memoirs by a Jesuit priest: he describes saying mass in a remote place, with a choir made up of a few members of the owner's household; a choir of men and women. This is particularly significant as women were, in theory, not allowed to sing in Roman Catholic services (hence the development of high falsettists and castrati).

Gatherings would no doubt have been disguised as routine household celebrations. Without too much artistic licence, we can imagine a group entertaining themselves after a meal by madrigals sung together and the going on to celebrate mass the next morning with the same group of people now singing mass itself.

So here is where we come to the nub of the matter. The masses were written to be useful to a flexible, variable group of adults (and possibly children). All are in keys from which transposition is simple. We can imagine the four-part mass being sung, variably, by a choir made up of women sopranos, with male altos, tenors and basses or women sopranos, women altos and male tenors and basses or even by an all male group. The Cardinall's Music, in their recordings have found that the four-part mass responds well to being transposed down to be sung ATBarB. As it was not usual for women to sing in church, the supply of women willing and able to do this might have been small so we can possibly imagine the masses being frequently sung by women sopranos with men on all the other parts or by all men in the ATBarB format. The three voice mass is even more flexible. It can easily be sung by SAT, ATB or even TBarB and its very shortness must have made it attractive if the mass had to be hurried.

All this helps us to make sense of the Byrd masses. Their origins in English recusant services rather than as part of an established church mean that the masses remain sui generis. We should not lose sight of Byrd's genius: it could be that the masses, though certainly practical, still contain elements that are not quite ideal, elements that arise simply from the composer's skill, and that is part of their charm.

Copyright © 1 January 2004 Robert Hugill, London UK


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