Dodgy Territory

In his later life William Byrd (c1540-1623) was as involved in litigation (relating to his religious beliefs as a Catholic in an aggressively Protestant environment) as he was in music. He was also quite famous for being unusually old.

In my view Byrd was the outstanding musician of his time – a brilliant composer of keyboard music, chamber music for viol consort, solo songs, madrigals and sacred music in English and Latin. Yet despite his personal beliefs, only after 1590 and perhaps under pressure from his patrons did he write music that was of practical use in Catholic worship. In the first decade of the 17th century he published two volumes of ‘propers’ – motets that set the texts required for mass on specific days such as Christmas and Easter – but before that in the 1590s he wrote his three settings of the mass for three, four and five voices respectively.

That for four voices was written first, at a time when religious sensibilities meant that no English composer had written a Latin mass for forty years. I first encountered this extra-ordinary music singing as a teenaged member of an otherwise adult ‘madrigal group’. We never gave concerts but met in members’ houses to explore repertoire that was then only at the very beginning of being at all well-known. Madrigals by Monteverdi; motets by Tallis that are still not really mainstream; and, the only sacred music I remember from those occasions, Byrd’s three masses. Thinking about it now, the atmosphere in those sessions was not unlike that which Byrd must have experienced in the illegal masses he attended in domestic surroundings – excited and secretive! He will also have been very fearful, but we were spared that.

Even then I was baffled and intrigued that, in the four voiced mass, Byrd began each movement with the same musical material (a so-called head motif) except the Sanctus, which was completely different. And it was only in the late 1970s that the scholar Philip Brett almost accidentally discovered why this was.
Brett’s researches had shown that Byrd often used musical ideas from other composers, especially Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder, (1543-1588), an Italian composer who worked in the English court on and off between 1562 and 1578. In pondering the masses Brett found himself browsing through music by John Taverner and in the older composer’s Meane Mass he found the answer to his (and my) question. In this mass JT began each movement with a rising scale. On further examination Brett realised that Byrd’s use of contrasted voice groupings and his placing of the principal divisions within each movement also mirrored Taverner’s practice. So here was the ground plan of the four voiced mass, the idea of a head motif to create a sense of musical unity and the rising scale with Byrd begins his Sanctus, not plagiarism or robbery but an elaboration of the basic material as a graceful compliment to his long-dead predecessor.

Come and hear it on 25th June. Yes, the Taverner compliment is lovely but in the following Agnus Dei Byrd writes music of a rare sublimity. One of our sopranos puts it in the same bracket as the conclusion of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I think it might be even better . . .