The Tudor Consort sings Byrd

Motets from the two volumes of William Byrd’s Gradualia; two organ fantasias; Motet: ‘Domine quis habitabit’

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart, with Douglas Mews (organ)

Sopranos Jane McKinlay, Anna Sedcole, Erin King; alto Andrea Cochrane; counter-tenor Dimitrios Theodoridis; tenors Philip Roderick and Richard Taylor; basses Brian Hesketh, Matthew Painter, Richard Walley.

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart; Saturday 13 February 2010

The Tudor Consort’s first concert of 2010 was wholly devoted to vocal liturgical music by William Byrd, apart from the inclusion of two of his keyboard fantasias played by Douglas Mews.

The choir’s director, Michael Stewart, spoke before the concert about Byrd’s two volumes of Gradualia, a term used sometimes used for the settings of the ‘Proper’ of the Mass – the part that varies according to the festivals of the church calendar – as well as for one section within the ‘Proper’; and he distinguished the ‘Proper’ from the ‘Ordinary’ of the mass whose six parts are unvarying: the usual content of musical mass settings. He also spoke of Byrd’s difficult times as a Catholic in the reign of Protestant monarchs Elizabeth I and James I, and the effect it had on his musical settings; and touched on the textual difficulties of Byrd’s publications, particularly of the first Volume of Gradualia.

Though ten members of the choir were on hand, most of the pieces were sung one voice to a part, varying between four and six voices; the final motet, ‘Domine quis habitabit’, demanded nine voices.

Though this was undoubtedly authentic in terms of the forces Byrd was probably limited to in Protestant England, we have no way of knowing whether, if his Catholic liturgical music had been written in times when performances did not have to be very private and small scale, he would not have expected a larger choir. Does it really serve the music well to pursue authenticity in such a literal way?

One voice to a part is undoubtedly a more challenging matter than singing in a larger choir where a good blend is probably easier to achieve and the experience for each singer is no doubt less nerve-wracking; and where the enjoyment of the audience might just be increased.

For the most part rehearsals seemed to have produced reasonable confidence in the singers. These are talented and well-schooled singers, but throughout the concert I was never unaware that the very distinct voices did not blend particularly well to create an illusion of real homogeneity.

The voices that stood out tended to be the high ones: the three sopranos and counter-tenor Dimitrios Theodoridis. In the pieces from the first volume of Gradualia, the strong and penetrating voices of Theodoridis and Anna Sedcole were conspicuous while mezzo Andrea Cochrane’s warm voice seemed rather better adapted to creating a successful blend. She, and the lower men’s voices, created an attractive liturgical ambience.

The ten singers took turns singing in each group of motets, adhering strictly to one voice to a part. The concert took examples of the 109 motets that comprise the two books, for various feasts or festivals: for the Virgin Mary in Advent, for Corpus Christi, for Pentecost, for the Assumption and for Saints Peter and Paul.

Jane McKinlay took over the soprano role in the next group, for Corpus Christi, her voice a little more readily blending, in the calm Offertory and the following ‘Ave verum corpus where hers was the only female voice, supported by the two tenors Philip Roderick and Richard Taylor and bass Matthew Painter; something of a real choral sound was produced. The singing succeeded in reflecting the gruesome nature of the words contemplating Christ’s mutilated body.

Though the range of vocal styles is limited, the subtle differences emerge as the ear and mind become acclimatized; the Sequence from the Pentacost Propers, ‘Veni sancta spiritus’ expressed through lively dotted rhythms, was an interesting case.

I detected some uncertainty in the next motet, ‘Factus est repente’ and raggedness in the Assumption Introit, ‘Gaudeamus omnes’. But the general precision and the scrupulous attention that had been paid to dynamics and intonation were far more noteworthy.

Douglas Mews played two fantasias on the chamber organ; the first, Byrd’s own arrangement of one of his fantasias for viol consort, the other an original organ fantasia. The first, in C, struck me as rather overcome by its subdued character, its interest lying in its slowly evolving textures; the second, in A minor, was probably an early piece, not very sophisticated though technically accomplished; the playing suggested some hesitancy.

The final motet, ‘Domine quis habitabit’, came as something of a welcome change, partly because it uses more voices and offered a wider sonic palette, with less tendency for individual voices to dominate. It too was an early work, as the programme note points out, thus closer in spirit and technique to Tallis, and perhaps not as representative of the mature Byrd as are the Gradualia. Nevertheless the constant, elaborate counterpoint was an impressive statement of the composer’s genius. It was a happy conclusion to the concert, allowing us finally to enjoy the essential strength and skill of the choir.

There is another question that I’m prompted to raise here.

In a time when Christian belief and practice are at a historic low, and familiarity with the terminology of the liturgy and church practice are only vaguely understood by the majority and probably not even very well by many Catholic adherents, is it time that the presumption of understanding of the arcane references to the liturgy and church ritual, without elucidation, was reconsidered? Short glossary notes should be routinely offered whenever such expressions are used.

While Stewart did explain the significance of the Ordinary and the Proper of the Mass, such pains were not routine. To take a few examples of terms for which no explanation was offered. First: the meaning and significance and place in the service of the Gradual, Antiphon, Introit, Offertory, Responsory, Eucharist; and what is ‘a votive mass’? And it should be routine to set down the dates and meanings of the various Christian feasts – Assumption, Pentecost, Advent, Annunciation, etc. There is a great deal more.

As with so much else in the realm of ‘classical’ music, the use of such terms, without simple explanation, is very likely one of the reasons this music is considered ‘elitist’, beyond the reach of the un-trained, the un-lettered: in fact, the great majority of people who are no longer exposed by their families, at any point in their school lives, or subsequently through the media, to religious liturgy or classical music of any kind.