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8.550574 - BYRD: Masses for Four and Five Voices

William Byrd (1543 - 1623)
Mass for Four Voices
Infelix ego
Mass for Five Voices

The early 1580s marked an important change in the sacred music of William Byrd, just as they did in the history of Catholicism in England; as Jesuits and "retrained" English priests began arriving from the continent to rejuvenate Catholic communities which had languished through laziness and spasmodic persecution, public executions such as that of Father Edmund Campion and two other Jesuits in 1581 provided brutal evidence that Queen Elizabeth I felt uncomfortable in her position as the Protestant ruler of a largely reactionary populace and threatened both by the fanaticism of plotters and the might of Spain.

William Byrd owed his position at the Chapel Royal and his monopoly with Tallis of music publishing to the Queen, and was one of many courtiers made to feel acutely a sense of divided loyalty. He and his family were charged with non-attendance at church on numerous occasions and from the mid-1580s Byrd appeared less in London and more in the households of Catholic patrons such as that of the Petre's at Ingalstone Hall in Essex.

Byrd's first response to this alienation from official life was an intensely emotional one. Many of the Latin motets of the 1580s, collected in two volumes of Cantiones sacrae, set words about the Babylonian Exile, charged with penitential ecstasy. These are non-liturgical works - indeed the text of Infelix ego draws on the Bible only indirectly through the pen of savonarola. The words, written as that Catholic puritan demagogue awaited execution in Florence, reflect on his own personal guilt and the redemptive pity of God. They stimulate Byrd's wide technical resources, from two- and three-part writing to complex six-part polyphony to dramatic homophony, the whole reminiscent of the vast Marian antiphons of Christopher Tye or William Mundy.

By contrast, the Mass settings are compact and controlled. They belong to a later period, when Byrd's response to his circumstances had changed from the impassioned to the practical; the Gradualia represent an attempt to set music for the entire Catholic liturgy, and the Masses may have been linked to the same project. Little can be said about the quality and effectiveness of these Masses which is not said by the fact that they are now absolutely at the heart of the English choral repertory. Ironic, one might think, for music which was conceived in answer to the plea, "How may we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"

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