Day 11 Mass for 5 voices – Gloria – William Byrd

Mass for 5 Voices – Gloria
William Byrd

I included this purely to have an English composition representative of the Early Renaissance period. It was a choice made purely on (incredibly feeble) academic grounds, based entirely on internet research. I had *no idea* the fascinating history ahead of me. I mean, intellectually, I knew that the time period was rife with religious persecution, but had never really considered how that would impact musically.

William Byrd (approx 1540 – 1623) is best known for his development of the English madrigal (chamber music) and for his virginal and organ music. As a young man, he studied under Thomas Talis and it is believed that he began composing seriously from his teenage years. After Talis died in 1585; Byrd appears to have applied himself more intensely to his craft, composing four collections of music in a mere 3 years.

A devout and lifelong (contested) Catholic, he became particularly active in Catholic circles from the 1570’s onwards. However he created many pieces for Anglican services, before devoting himself to composing liturgical music that would cover all the principal feasts of the Catholic Church calendar.

So far, so straight forward, right? Well, not so much actually. Being a Catholic during the Shakespearean era wasn’t always the safest thing to be. Following on from Pope Pius V’s papal bull in 1570 – which effectively absolved Queen Elizabeth’s subjects from allegiance to her and rendered her an exile to mother Church – Tudor authorities were a bit miffed and began to increasingly suspect Catholics (en masse) of sedition. Course, it certainly didn’t help that there was an influx of missionary priests arriving from France and Rome.

According to wikipedia, Byrd wasn’t exactly above getting involved:

Byrd himself is found in the company of prominent Catholics. In 1583 he got into serious trouble because of his association with Paget, who was suspected of involvement in the Throckmorton Plot, and for sending money to Catholics abroad. As a result of this, Byrd’s membership of the Chapel Royal was apparently suspended for a time, restrictions were placed on his movements, and his house was placed on the search list. In 1586 he attended a gathering at a country house in the company of Father Henry Garnett (later executed for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot) and the Catholic poet Robert Southwell

This probably explains why the masses were published separately, between 1592 and 1595, in undated editions, do not name the printer and “consist of only one bifolium per partbook to aid concealment”. These masses would have been considered heterodox, with serious consequences if found in your possession.

Very English Masses

  • On the continent, the convention for mass composition was to rely upon a central unifying theme.
  • Byrd took a different approach.
    • from each mass to the next, Byrd seems to have revised and reworked certain music ideas
    • this means that all three masses end up unified by a “conservative and beautifully sculpted tone of “classical” counterpoint”
  • The Mass in Five Voices was published last.
    • It links several of the preceding movements by means of freely composed, but repeated, themes.
  • The masses – whose texts had been set a variety of different ways across the 15th and 16th centuries – become something more vibrant and fresh from his approach.

With all the history, I found myself less invested in the musical aspects of the piece – glorious though they may be (see what I did there?). Byrd – with roughly 470 compositions – is a musicians musician – a Grand Master. I can hear that it all works beautiful and found myself moved several times…but I don’t recognise the techniques (or the words used to describe the techniques) at all, even with a step by step manual! I did look up the ‘mass’ elements (which as someone raised in the Catholic faith made perfect sense to me).


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