The Tudor Consort presents:
SING JOYFULLY –
A 400th Year Celebration of the works of William Byrd (c.1540-1623)
Mass for Four Voices
– Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei
Ave Verum Corpus
Ne irascaris Domine satis
– Civitas Sancti tui
The Great Service
– Kyrie, Venite, Credo, Benedictus, Te Deum
Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles
The Tudor Consort
– sopranos: Erin King, Jane McKinlay, Melanie Newfield, Rebecca Stanton
– altos: Emma Drysdale, Alexander Granville, Tahlia Griffis. Kassandra Wang
– tenors: John Beaglehole, Peter Liley, Joshua Long, Herbert Zielinski
– basses: Brian Hesketh, Joshua Jamieson, Matthew Painter, Isaac Stone
Music Director; Michael Stewart
Instrumentalists (The Great Service)
– Cornetti: Andrew Weir, Paula Weir
– Sackbuts: Jonathan Harker, Byron Newton, Peter Maunder, Luke Spence
Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, Molesworth St.
Saturday, 1st July 2023
Being a music-lover but still made occasionally aware of certain “gaps” in my knowledge of and love for various musical eras and their characteristic styles, I was forced to confront head-on such a one of these unchartered spots over recent days when asked to review a concert presented by the Tudor Consort, one devoted to the music of William Byrd on the occasion of the latter’s 400th anniversary. I make this statement knowing fully well that my opinions as expressed below of the quality of music-making I heard at the scheduled concert inevitably consist more of the fruits of nascent revelation than of prior knowledge or experience. Rather than striving to somehow “paper over” such gaping holes in my musical education I thought I would readily acknowledge my defects and seek to present my “delight in discovery”, hopefully, in the process of doing so conveying a measure of the extent to which the performers brought the music to glorious life for everybody present, including the uninitiated, such as myself.
Happily, much of the background information relating to the concert was provided in a pre-concert talk by the Tudor Consort’s Director Michel Stewart, who outlined some of the flavour of the times in which William Byrd lived and worked as a musician and a composer in England. It was of course a period dominated by religious and political upheavals brought about by both the Reformation and the changes in succession to the English throne, resulting in the older Roman Catholicism having to eventually give way to Protestantism as decreed by the Monarch of the time. Byrd, who was a devout Catholic, found himself unable to publicly practise his faith when the 1559 Act of Uniformity forbad the celebration of the Catholic liturgy. He was fortunate, however, that Queen Elizabeth I, who had taken the throne and firmly established the Protestant Church of England, was herself a music-lover and musician, and was at first tolerant of both Byrd’s and his fellow-composer (and former teacher) Thomas Tallis’ religious beliefs. Both composers were members of and wrote for the prestigious Chapel Royal, Byrd continuing to produce a substantial amount of English liturgical music, among which can be found numerous English Anthems, and “The Great Service”. The latter was not published in Byrd’s lifetime, about which there has been considerable conjecture – was this due to potential difficulties for Byrd caused by increasing anti-Catholic sentiment, even though the work was probably his most significant contribution to the Anglican liturgical world? He was, as well, engaged in writing settings of the Latin mass after he’d left London, removing himself from the scrutiny of the Queen’s “informers” regarding his participation in and contributions to secret Catholic rites of worship. He continued to write settings in English as well, both sacred and secular, though his music’s Latin texts frequently made allusions to the plight of the Jews in Biblical times, relating the same to the English Catholic community’s present privations. After living for a while at Harlington, in Middlesex, he eventually moved his family to Stondon Massey in Essex where he died 400 years ago.
Michael Stewart drew our attention to several examples of what the evening’s programme would present us with, beginning with the “Catholic” first half, and mentioning in particular an item which the Consort had performed in their inaugural 1986 concert – the five-part motet Ne Irascaris Domine – Civitas sancti tui (Be not angry, O Lord…). The text consists of verses from Isaiah (64:9,10) interpolated into the Mass, an example of text derived from Scripture which could easily pertain to the situation of Catholics wanting to practise their faith in England at Byrd’s time. Another, earlier interpolation in the mass was the motet “Ave Verum Corpus”, for centuries a “forbidden pleasure” in England, being a Catholic work, but more recently a staple of what one might describe as almost interdenominational worship – and at Evensong, no less (all of this according to what I’ve recently read about the work!)
Regarding the concert’s “Anglican” second half, Stewart spoke of Byrd’s “The Great Service”, telling us that the evening’s performance would be augmented by instrumentalists in places (along with an accompanying organ, there were to be cornetts and sackbuts) as was sometimes done (and, according to some accounts I read, to the “indignation” of some more Puritan listeners!). A particular feature of tonight’s performance was that, as well as two cornetts, it featured no less than four sackbuts accompanying the singers, and (as one of the players told me) was the first time so many of these particular instruments had been assembled for a concert in this country!
So it was with a good deal of anticipation that we awaited the arrival of the Tudor Consort voices for the concert’s first half, sixteen soloists in groups of four per single part, to firstly perform for us Byrd’s Mass for four voices. This was probably the first of his three Mass settings to be written, but the exact dates are unknown, due to the composer’s reluctance to publish these works in complete form at a time when such pro-Catholic activity was a potentially punishable offence. This also explains in part the simpler resources required for this music compared with those compositions by the composer for the Chapel Royal.
The opening Kyrie was exquisitely realised, sounded with a delicacy that suggested an awakening – with the following Christe came an increased sense of space, not merely from the cathedral acoustic, but a kind of widening of vocal possibility, as if after an awakening came a flowering. The Kyrie’s return imparted a strengthening of this resolve, and a plaintiveness whose edge could be felt amidst the sound’s beauty, fully drawn by the end.
A tenor solo introduced the Gloria, an announcement followed by some concerted vocal excitement, even, I felt, a touch of urgency here and there, the lines thankfully binding together at Gratias agimus tibi, and building joyfully towards the soprano line at Deus Pater Omnipotens. The voices brought out Byrd’s different portrayal of Jesus Christi as unigenite (Only Son) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) – in other words as a sacrifice! And what ritualistic beauty and wonderment the ensemble imparted to Qui tollis peccata mundi, an amalgam of radiance and faith, all the more intensified by Qui sedes a dextram Patris, with its sense of majesty. By contrast, the juices start to run with Quoniam tu solus sanctus, building up to exhilaration at Cum Sancto Spiritu right through to the conclusive Amen!
It seems as though Byrd intended his movements of his masses to be interspersed with other material, perhaps randomly, perhaps in conjunction with various feast-days on the liturgical calendar, Whatever the case, the Tudor Consort chose firstly the motet Ave Verum Corpus, written by Byrd for the feast of Corpus Christi, a holy day outlawed in England following the Reformation, but still celebrated secretly – which circumstance would have given rise to its insertion in a Mass, as here. Its beautifully harmonic blend of tones at the opening has a resonance and richness befitting the sacredness of the image – Ave verum corpus natum – Hail, the true body! – while the voices’ incisive, pinpoint attack upon the words at Cuius latus perforatum (from whose pierced flank) readily pierced the flesh of one’s listening sensibility. And what a touching contrast we heard with O dulcis, O pie, O Jesu Filii Mariae, the lovely thirds of Miserere mei giving a real sense of mercy implored. The repeat of O Dulcis, and Miserere Mei was even more “covered” and replete with intent, which the defiant and resolute Amen strengthened splendidly.
The Credo, announced by the tenor once again, began with the women’s voices in a canon-like opening exchange which filled out as the men’s voices joined the mosaic-like textures of Patrem omnipotentem and the abstracted word-painting of visibilium omnium et invisibilium with celestial assurance. I relished all over again my distant but still well-remembered delight in “bouncing” some of these words back and forth as a child in our penny-plainchant parish church version – Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum, de deo vero…. Such quasi-celestial pleasures were brought down to earth at Qui propter nos homines, the singers allowing a haze of luminosity to descend from the heights via a lovely cascading soprano line at de caelis. The almost lullabic Et in carnatus est was beautiful, culminating in a swaying factus est from the sopranos and tenors, before the pitiless announcement of the Crucifixus darkened the spirits. What relief the announcement Et resurrexit tertia die here brought! And how thrillingly visceral was Et ascendit in coelum, along with the roulades of tone that accompanied Sedet ad dexteram Patris, and the reassuring cujus regni non erit finis. Then the ceremonial declaration of faith at “Et unam sanctam catholicam Ecclesiam” gave all the more more life and overt purpose to the final Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, which made leaps and bounds through Et vitam venturi saeculi to a resounding “Amen”.
By way of another break from the liturgical narrative we then heard the motet Ne Iracaris Domine – Civitas sancti tui (Be not angry, O Lord…), whose commentary regarding the plight of the Jewish people at the hands of the oppressors would have resonated in the hearts and minds of Byrd’s fellow Catholics under a similar yoke of oppression. It received a performance from the Consort which, in my humble opinion produced the most beautifully sustained singing of the evening – begun by the male voices, the opening “Be not angry, O Lord” registered as a gentle lament rising from the depths, the words repeated with the entry of the women’s voices, the music growing in intensity as the “iniquities” of privation are mentioned, and bursting forth at Ecce, respice (the building’s resonances wondrously activated at this point!), continuing the beseechment with populus tuus omnes nos (Behold, we are all your people!) – everything long-breathed and intertwined, as if the whole world was raising its voice! The motet’s second part, Civitas sancti tui (Your Holy City),refers to the resultant desolation of Jerusalem (Zion), the music imparting more sorrow than anger throughout, and in places seeming to evoke memories of past glories and the iniquities that have brought desolation to the place of these glories.
I thought the Sanctus strangely austere and lament-like at first, the singers solemnly and intensely drawing us into the ceremonial realm, with the Hosanna at last bringing us some relief! All very beautiful……similarly, the Benedictus invited us to contemplate, at first, the “one who comes”, before giving voice to joyful energies with the concluding Hosanna. The Agnus Dei seemed like an extended return to the opening Kyrie at first, with the women’s voices beautifully filling out the two-part textures; but the music morphs into perhaps the most moving part of the whole Mass with the intensification of tones and textures towards the third Agnus Dei and its beautiful Dona Nobis Pacem at the end.
This was, as previously outlined, very much a concert of two halves, and it was possible to sense a different kind of excitement regarding the Consort’s presentation of the second part, featuring Byrd’s “The Great Service”, in addition to two “interpolations”, the 1611 “Praise Our Lord all ye Gentiles”, and the earlier anthem “Sing Joyfully”, both written for use in the Anglican service. What galvanised one’s interest was the appearance of the instrumentalists, whose task was to accompany those parts of “The Great Service” performed this evening – incidentally, two of these, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, were omitted, to be included instead at the Cathedral‘s Evensong service the following day.
Byrd wrote the work for the Chapel Royal, which accounts for the elaboration of the writing, both vocal and instrumental, compared with that for his Masses – he therefore had sufficient scope for six, eight and even ten-part counterpoint, often contrasting solo and small-ensemble lines with the larger groupings for dramatic and structural effect. According to what I’ve read Byrd was not averse to sackbuts and cornetti accompanying the voices alongside the organ, though various commentaries and reviews seem to differ on this point. My only comment as to their use in this present context is that their presence certainly contributed to the overall magnificence of the music’s sound, but made it even more difficult for the actual words to be deciphered – in the voluminous spaces of Wellington Cathedral, size (i.e., the number of performers) is one of the considerations which does seem to really matter!
For this reason most of the second half was a markedly different listening experience to that heard before the interval – the exceptions were the aforementioned “interpolations”, the texts of both of which I could follow more readily, as with the Mass and the motets we heard before the interval. In a less cavernous acoustic I would imagine we could experience (and enjoy) much of the added magnificence of the wind-and-brass sounds without sacrificing the clarity of the words to the same extent. After the deliciously light and airy opening “O come, let us sing unto the Lord”, the full range of voices and instruments in most of the other movements created an overwhelming impression which one simply had to relish for its own, (admittedly at times thrilling!) sonorous qualities. The sound by no means lacked variety, but the contrasts in tone and colour I found difficult to pinpoint in the text. I wasn’t alone in this as my companion similarly attested afterwards to a strain throughout in making out where the voices had gotten up to in the ensembled passages.
The difference became obvious with the following unaccompanied Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles, in which the singing and word-pointing had such an infectious sense of unbridled energy throughout, as if “all ye peoples” around the globe were helping to make it spin, the final “Amen” being particularly vertiginous for all concerned, with the acoustic actually heightening the sense of abandonment.
Next was the Creed, introduced by the tenor, then with voices uplifted at first to God alone, then with the sounds opened up to creation at And of all things visible and invisible (my familiarity with the text here helping to identify the words!).The Almighty was suitably solemnised at God of Gods, Light of Light, Very God of very God, the voices then descending and imparting a more human voice at who, for us men, then celebrating at and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost. The voices beautifully resonated the words He suffered and was buried, the day of resurrection “grown” within the music as if by divine will, as was the following and ascended into heaven, drawn upwards by the airborne voices.
I found both the Benedictus and the Te Deum from “The Service” more difficult to follow through unfamiliarity with each of the texts, despite having the words to hand, though there were compensations afforded by the music’s kaleidoscopic textures, the constant shifting of form, pattern and colour in the music making for endless fascination, especially as these qualities were so writ-large in such a listening environment, if at the expense of the words’ clarity. The instruments themselves never obtruded in an unseemly or ill-balanced sense – as an orchestral texture they blended richly and colourfully, providing a fascinatingly flavoured contrast with the other music in the evening’s programme. Perhaps because of my relative inexperience with these genres, I had no “puritan” objection whatever to the presence of the instruments, which, if performed in a less resonant location would have given more ambient space to word-sounding while still making a world of difference.
Happily, I also took away from the concert the impression made by the programme’s second-to-last item, the name of which, incidentally, Sing Joyfully, was given to the presentation by the group – an impression of joyful immersion in singing and musicality from all concerned, and of communication to listeners via sound, aspect and movement. I had an opportunity to briefly talk with one of the singers afterwards whose only complaint regarding what they’d done was that they were only getting one chance at performing the music – quite apart from any idea that they might be able to “improve” things that didn’t quite come off as hoped, the singer lamented the “end” of the experience as it was, rather than having the opportunity to do something all over again that was so wonderful! Apart from the sadness at it coming to such an abrupt end, I thought the sentiment paid a richly-deserved tribute to the composer and his music and to the excellence of what was achieved by those who took part – Tudor Consort Director, Michael Stewart, and his wonderful singers and (for the second half) instrumentalists. It’s a tribute I’m pleased to be able to endorse as a listener new to this music and duly captivated by the beauty and lasting relevance of it all.