Missa In Tempore Paschali, Regina caeli, In Assumptone Beate Mariae Virginis, Ave Regina caelorum, Salve Regina
Vocal ensemble - Chanticleer
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William Byrd (1543-1623) was the chief musician of Elizabethan England. Appointed organist of Lincoln Cathedral at an early age, he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1570, and had risen high enough in the royal favor five years later to secure a monopoly over printed music for himself and his teacher, Thomas Tallis. The quality of his music makes him the equal of such composers as Palestrina and Lassus. Yet his circumstances were very different from theirs. He was a tenacious Catholic in a Protestant country whose government was increasingly (if unwillingly) committed to punitive action against "recusants", those who refused to attend services in the reformed church.
A crucial event for Byrd, as for many others, must have been the execution in 1581 of Edmund Campion, one of the first martyrs of the Jesuit "mission" to reconvert England. The composer wrote a song commemorating his death, and was bold enough to publish it in 1588. Mis rnotet collections of 1589 and 1591 are full of texts about the second corning and the Babylonian captivity, texts which taken as a whole, point unmistakeably to a militant, protesting attitude. Since the words were all biblical the music could not be construed as being seditious or treasonable. Indeed, it is likely that Byrd remained loyal to the Queen, yet there are records from the 1580s linking him with the Jesuit missionaries, particularly with their leader, Henry Garnet, himself a musical man.
In 1593 Byrd appears to have retired from active life at court; he moved his family from Harlington (near the present Heathrow airport) to a small village deep in the Essex countryside called Stondon Massey. Nearby lived a powerful friend and patron, the very rich Catholic nobleman, Sir John Pctrc. His house at Ingatestone seems to have been one oftho.se centers in which religious observance was maintained, probably under the control of the dowager Lady Petre, well known as a fervent "Papist."
In this protected environment Ryrd ventured an even more dangerous step. He-wrote, and published between 1593 and 1595, three settings of the Ordinary of the Mass. Modeled on a Mass by the leading composer of Henry VIII's reign, John Taverner, these works were clearly intended as a special statement about the continuity of the Catholic tradition. Again, the government was not provoked, probably because the Masses did not Haunt their identity (they were published without a title-
page) and because their texts were also part of the Anglican rite, which could legally be celebrated in Latin in places where it was understood.
As it turned out, the Masses were only the first installment of a grand liturgical plan that came to fruition much later. In 1605 Byrd published a collection entitled Gra-dualia, which contained settings of the Mass Propers (or variable texts) for several feasts of the church year that were particularly important to Roman Catholics. A second volume of Gradualia was published two years later - All Saints, Corpus Christi. and those celebrating the Virgin Mary. He also included a large number of settings of texts from the Book of Little Offices, commonly known as the Primer, the prayer book most popular with the Catholic laiety in these times when access to a priest was both irregular and dangerous. The tuning of publication was unfortunate - it coincided with the infamous Gunpowder Plot in which a group of young Catholic hotheads attempted unsuccessfully to blow up the King and Parliament. Byrd appears to have withdrawn the book, but the atmosphere eased sufficiently two years later for him to publish a second volume containing Mass Propers (and office antiphons) for the major feasts of the church year - Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, and Whitsuntide. He included at the end impressive six-pait settings of the texts for the Masses of St. Peter and Paul and St. Peter's Chains as a tribute to the dedicatee. Sir John Petre. Both books of' Gradualia were reissued in 1610.
The music in these two great collections is in some ways very different from the ideal of the sixteenth century motet, and from the rest or ByrtPs output. Apart from the dedicatory six-part Petre music, there is little grandiloquence. On the contrary the words are set succinctly, even tersely, in a manner that seems understated until after repeated hearings the richness of its sub-text rises in the mind's ear. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the "cut-and-paste" attitude Byrd adopted towards the Marian texts in Book I. Using the same mode and set of clefs for all 25 pieces, he did not reset duplicate texts, but left the singers to find them elsewhere in the book. Thus the Gradual for the Assumption is supplied from the music of the Annunciation, the Introit verse from the Nativity of the Virgin.
Another reason for the music's restraint is its liturgical purpose ; decorum or appropriateness was the highest aesthetic principle of the age and one which Byrd fully respected. Another matter is the circumstance of performance. "These little flowers culled mostly from your gardens," (as Byrd calls the pieces in his dedication to Sir John) were designed not tor serried ranks of male choristers in over-resonant Gothic cathedrals but for domestic Mass at the Peires, where (us in other Catholic households) the rite might be celebrated in the dining hall (at best) or more likely in some out-of-the-way chamber penetrated only by the family and by trusted retainers and Mends, with a handful of trained musicians to perform under the composers direction.
The intimacy of the music nevertheless encourages a certain spiritual intensity that Hvrd had not attempted in his earlier, more flamboyant, motets. This is amply illustrated in the setting of the Communion for the Assumption (Optimam parlcm), which searches sublimely tor an expression of the mystery of virgin birth. The Assumption Mass is accompanied here by three of the Marian orifice antiphons, one of them being called Ave Regina caelorum.
The Easter music from Book 11 is perhaps the most concentrated and unified of the-Mass cycles. In the setting oft he sequence Victimac Puschali Byrd allows himseli'a certain drama, which carries through to the earthquake music of the Offertory and sets ofi the limpid mysticism of the Communion all the more powerfully. It is in music like this that one senses not only Byrd's mastery as a composer, but his firm committment to the Roman Catholic cause which he served so faithfully.
University of California, Berkeley