Byrd was an alto

January 2013

Some sixty singers gathered at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate on Sunday, January 6th, for the first TVEMF event to be directed by Jeremy Jackman. The event was publicised as Byrd Without Barlines but, for reasons which will become apparent, a different title has been chosen for this review. Members would no doubt agree that we are very fortunate to have so many events directed by musicians and musicologists who are able to combine instruction with entertainment and provide us with days which are highly rewarding in both respects. However, Jeremy’s interesting discourse on the history of the church at the start of today had a touch of the macabre; he reminded us of the proximity of the church to the former Newgate execution site and directed our attention to the handbell which was rung when such events were about to take place. Less pious observers were wont, as is recorded in The Execution, a poem in the first series of Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends, to view the scene (until public executions were abolished in 1868) from the conveniently sited ancient inn across the road, the Magpie and Stump, the site of which is now occupied by a bar called The Firefly.

Returning to the event itself, Jeremy explained that the aim was to give us some idea of the conditions under which singers of Byrd’s day would have performed. To this end we began with a piece familiar to almost all of us, Ave Verum Corpus. We sang this first of all from the John Morehen edition which is reproduced in the Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems. This provided the base from which Jeremy expanded on the theme that Barlines Are Bad For You. They encourage mechanical stresses on the syllable immediately following the bar line, thus distorting the natural rhythms of the words: bar lines, as expressed in his ingenious play on words, get it wrong at a stroke. We then sang it from an edition prepared by Jeremy from which all the bar lines had been removed, but brackets had been inserted to provide some guidance as to the phrasing. Finally we sang from individual parts. This inevitably required us to pay more attention to what was going on in other parts instead of concentrating on our own respective lines. Throughout this gradual peeling away of editorial addition we were constantly exhorted not merely to “go tick” but to do so in concord with our neighbours.

We continued with the much less familiar Psallite Domino from the second book of Gradualia (1607), first in an edition without bar lines and then with individual parts only. The text is taken from Psalm 67, vv. 32-33. The rhythmic complexities of this piece, which required even more assiduous ticking, prompted Jeremy to observe that Duke Ellington was good at jazz, but Byrd was better. Byrd’s career as a composer was of course complicated by the religious persecutions of the second half of Elizabeth’s reign (the execution of Fr. Edmund Campion and two other Catholic priests in 1581 being a particularly brutal example) and he himself was cited for recusancy on a number of occasions from the mid-1580s onwards, but somehow he survived personally, prospered financially and attracted some degree of official tolerance and even approval, composing, for instance, a consort song, Look and bow down (with words by Queen Elizabeth), on the defeat of the Spanish Armada, as well as O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth, our Queen (which we studied later in the day). Nevertheless, as Jeremy told us, his survival was always precarious, and we were treated to an entertaining, if perhaps slightly fanciful vignette of life in the Petre household at Ingatestone, which portrayed the family engaging in secret worship with the musical assistance of the butler singing bass and the housemaid, soprano. Drawing attention to the richness of the alto part in Justorum Animae and the prominent ornamentation of that same part in Psallite Domino, he propounded the hypothesis that Byrd was the alto in this ensemble, supporting it with the observation that he was succeeded in the Chapel Royal by an alto (though your reviewer has been unable to identify that successor in the short time available for writing this review).

Next came the largest-scale and most demanding item of the programme, Laudibus in sanctis from Cantiones sacrae II (1591). The original voicing of this was ATTBB, but we sang it from the CPDL edition by Diana Thompson, transposed up a major third for performance by SSATB. Jeremy regaled us with an interesting disquisition about the consensus on such transpositions (the received wisdom for many years having been that a minor third was appropriate) and the doubt cast on the received wisdom by the discovery of part of an organ which had been incorporated into the wall of a barn in Norfolk. He was clearly sceptical about this discovery as a basis for such doubt, but in any event he decided that we should sing it in E flat major instead of E major as printed, that being a more singer-friendly key. Laudibus in sanctis is in three parts. The text of the first part somewhat resembles that of Psalm. 150, vv.1-2, and there are echoes of succeeding verses in the second part, Magnificum domini, where tympani and organa resound in praise of God, but the third part goes off on something of a frolic with arguta joining in the instrumental ensemble, agile praise, joyful dancing (chorea from coreia, a dance in a ring) in three-time, and back to the well-tuned cymbals before the long and ornate Alleluia which, most unusually, has additional text-Alleluia (all five syllables) canat, tempus in omne Deo. Once again the malign influence of the bar lines was remarked upon, and we were also reminded that our perceptions of Renaissance music are refracted through the prism of all that has gone before, from modern, back through romantic, classical and baroque, so that a conscious effort is required in order to realise the music free from these perceptual accretions. Opinions are apparently divided about the merits of O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth, our Queen, the text of which is adapted from Psalm 21. It has also been pressed into service for male monarchs, with “Elizabeth, our queen” replaced by “Our sovereign Lord, the King” when James VI and I was the subject of the requests for divine favour; and, of course, Handel’s Coronation Anthem “The king shall rejoice” is based on the same psalm text. The interesting point was raised that the normally unimportant words “and” and “but” seemed to be given undue prominence in the setting, but this is explicable as a rhetorical device pointing up the accumulation of requests which are being made for the monarch’s physical and spiritual well-being, the request for a long life being of particular importance in an age of short life expectancy and danger of assassination or death by other non-natural causes.

The last item which we attempted was the Agnus Dei I from the four-part mass, again sung in an edition without bar lines, our final rendering being sung, scrambled, from the altar steps, giving us a chance to appreciate the acoustic along the length of the church. There is really nothing to say about this well-known and much admired work except that it was a fitting conclusion to a most enjoyable and instructive day which has given us much food for thought.

We are all most grateful to Jeremy for all the work that he has put in to making the day such a success, and our warm thanks are also due to all those who helped to organise the event.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017