Byrd Song – programme note

Published: 29th July 2020

The course of sacred music in England during the sixteenth century was not a straightforward one, as prevailing musical styles were influenced by the innovations of individual composers, trends imported from the Continent, and most markedly the religious and political upheaval which punctuated the life of England at this time. This last, the process of reformation begun by Henry VIII and which, after the brief Restoration of Mary Tudor, culminated in the Elizabethan settlement, was to have an enormous impact on the lives of English Catholics, with adherence to the new Church of England enforced during Elizabeth’s reign by oaths of conformity and compulsory attendance at services. Penalties for disobedience were severe, with hefty fines imposed, although the laity generally fared far better than the clergy, for whom martyrdom was the likely outcome if discovered.

It is in this milieu that William Byrd (1540-1623), arguably the greatest of English Renaissance composers and ‘Brittanicae Musicae parens’ (‘Father of British music’) as one eulogist described him, lived and worked. Byrd was a devout and lifelong Catholic and as such a recusant, albeit one shielded to some extent at least from the full force of the Protestant reformers by virtue of his position as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. Several commentators have suggested (not unreasonably) that Byrd’s recusancy is strongly reflected in his music and that his motets, both Latin and vernacular, which deal with the subjects of the destruction of Jerusalem and the resurrection, often with associated pleas for divine intervention and clemency, allude to the plight of his fellow Catholics.

William Byrd, engraving by Van der Gucht c.1700

What is striking, given the turbulent climate in which he lived, is that Byrd wrote and, more audaciously, had printed a huge amount of music for the Catholic rite. Joseph Kerman has argued that Byrd’s musical outlook altered significantly in the early 1590s, coinciding with a marked change in personal circumstance. After publishing two volumes of motets (in 1589 and 1591) steeped in covert political and religious commentary, in 1593 Byrd and his family moved away from London to the village of Stondon Massey in Essex, seemingly to allow them to be within the orbit of Sir John Petre and his house at Ingatestone Hall, where this programme was filmed.

Petre, a recusant nobleman and one of Byrd’s staunchest patrons, was the dedicatee of Byrd’s second volume of Gradualia, where the composer writes that the music it contains has ‘mostly proceeded from your house, which is most friendly to me and mine’ and goes on to say that ‘these little flowers are plucked as it were from your gardens and are most rightfully due to you as tithes.’ Byrd’s two Gradualia volumes provide a comprehensive compendium of music for all of the services of the church year, from beautifully crafted miniatures to lengthier multi-section works of the type found at the start of the final section in the earlier 1605 volume of music for three voices.

These longer Marian hymns, beginning with Quem terra, pontus, O gloriosa Domina and Memento, salutis auctor, make up the majority of the three-part pieces included in the print, which consists predominantly of music in four and five parts. This relatively sparse texture arguably results in some of Byrd’s most accomplished writing, as the leanness of scoring means that nothing is superfluous in these expertly-crafted polyphonic settings in praise of the Virgin Mary, casting her in her traditional roles of virgin, holy mother, and intercessor. This last, the notion of Mary as ‘mediatrix’, was particularly prized by recusants, at least in part because of its problematisation by Protestant reformers.

Intricate filigree part-writing is a general trait of Byrd’s Gradualia music, and is evident in the three-part works in abundance, including in the final piece of the 1605 volume, Adorna thalamum tuum. This setting of a processional antiphon for the Feast of the Purification also shows the influence on Byrd of the Italian madrigal – a genre which became popular in England following the publication of Nicholas Yonge’s Musica Transalpina in 1588 – as he employs a variety of word-painting techniques to emphasise the text, including the syncopation to imply rocking for ‘ipsa enim portat Regem’, the rising sequence and extended melisma for ‘gloriae novi luminis’, and the deliberately low tessitura for ‘subsistit Virgo’.

Byrd’s settings of the mass for three, four and five voices, which were printed between 1592 and 1595 (tellingly without title-page, date or the name of the printer, presumably because of their incendiary nature – there is a report of a Jesuit arrested in 1605 with copies of the Gradualia in his possession), would certainly have been intended for liturgical performance. At this time clandestine services were being conducted in the private houses and chapels of many of the Catholic nobility by Jesuit priests trained abroad, and there is documentation that frequently ‘the Masse was celebrated with singing, and musicall instruments’, so it is easy to imagine Byrd and members of both his and Sir John Petre’s households performing the masses and works from the Gradualia at Ingatestone Hall.

Portrait of Sir John Petre at Ingatestone Hall

The very real dangers that such celebrations entailed (discovery mid-service could mean torture, imprisonment and/or death for all present) meant that unlike his Continental contemporaries, for whom the mass was arguably their most prestigious compositional genre in Catholic Europe, Byrd directed his efforts towards brevity and economy. Also unlike both his European counterparts and some of his pre-Reformation English forebears, Byrd chose not to model his masses on pre-existing musical material (with the exception of the Sanctus of his mass for four voices, which is based on a section of John Taverner’s Mean Mass), although in all three settings, movements are linked by shared melodies. In the case of the mass for three voices, a common melodic fragment links the openings of the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo, and another the Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

Byrd’s mass settings, like all of his Latin-texted sacred music, are remarkable for the care with which he navigates the text: in the dedication to the first volume of the Gradualia, he remarks that ‘In the very sentences (as I have learned from experience) there is such hidden and concealed power that to a man thinking about divine things and turning them over attentively and earnestly in his mind, the most appropriate measures come, I know not how, as if by their own free will, and freely offer themselves to his mind if it is neither idle nor inert.’ This is certainly true in the mass for three voices, where pictorial madrigalianisms colour the less abstract text of the Credo, and Byrd gives particular significance to the doctrinally important passage in this movement by repeating the word ‘Catholicam’, with all three voices singing together in homophony – it’s no accident that the words ‘Catholicam’, ‘Apostolicam’ and ‘Ecclesiam’ are consistently capitalised in the prints of all three masses.

Byrd’s compositional talents also extended far beyond Latin-texted sacred music to embrace all of the major musical genres of the late sixteenth-century: as well as English-texted service music, secular songs and works for instrumental consort, his output includes over a hundred pieces for keyboard, the majority of which are found in two important Elizabethan collections. Will you walk the woods so wild, a set of variations based on a Tudor song beloved of Henry VIII, appears in both My Lady Nevell’s Book and the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, as well as five other manuscripts, such was its popularity. Byrd’s contemporary, the lutenist Francis Cutting, arranged it and a number of other keyboard works for the lute, including The fall of the leaf by Martin Peerson, a composer convicted of recusancy in 1606 alongside the playwright Ben Jonson. Cutting was employed as a musician by the Howard family, themselves noted recusants, with Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel becoming a Catholic martyr in 1595 on his death after ten years of imprisonment in the Tower of London. Cutting was also a prolific composer in his own right, best known for his ‘Divisions on Greensleeves’, a set of variations on the popular Elizabethan folksong.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

300-odd years later, Catholicism was reemerging, and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was drawn in. Born in Essex, his family and friends estranged him on his decision to convert in 1866 at the age of twenty-two. He struggled throughout his life to square his devotion to God with his career as a poet, and indeed he destroyed many of his early works. He ended his days an Englishman isolated in Dublin, bereft of family or friend, dying aged forty-four from typhoid fever. His sonnet The Caged Skylark, written in sprung rhythm (a form which he rediscovered from English folk songs and Shakespeare), explores the feeling of being trapped in one’s own skin, imprisoned by one’s circumstances.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Jamaica in 1889, he was educated by his older brother on a diet of classical and British literature, including much Shakespeare, reading forms that would stick with him whilst modernism became mainstream. McKay was a fervent anti-racist, shedding light on life and discrimination in Harlem in his work. Later in life he turned to Catholicism, eventually being baptised in 1944. This, along with his love of old poetic forms (in particular sonnets) made McKay an outlier within the movement, and a figure for criticism during his lifetime.

Roger Robinson is a British writer, musician, and performer, who lives between London and Trinidad. ‘Midwinter’, which opens Byrd Song, comes from A Portable Paradise, which won the 2019 T.S Eliot prize and the 2020 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. Sound and music rings through Robinson’s taut, unflinching works that take on a natural folkish rhythm with startling directness.

Roger Robinson

Threaded through this programme of music and text is a quiet desire to break free; to be one’s self; to sing out. Ingatestone Hall, nestled in the Essex countryside, offered solace and shelter from persecution, but also allowed Byrd, who was described in his own time as ‘a glory to our race, and a nightingale to our people’, to quietly express himself. Essex, being the home of the nightingale during the spring and early summer, seemed like the natural place to perform this music whilst we were very gently emerging from our own state of isolation. We brought this music home; and now we bring it to your home.

© Rory McCleery and James Hardie 2020


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