The Great Byrd Mystery

July 2015

When did he write it? At whose request or command, and for what occasion, was it written? Where was it intended to be performed? Such were the questions that remained largely unanswered at the conclusion of the TVEMF workshop devoted mainly to Byrd’s Great Service, which took place under the direction of John Milsom at the Headington Community Centre on 14 March.

Before immersing themselves in the complexities of the Great Service, the fifty singers who took part were required to circumvent the obstacles placed in the way of their arrival at the venue by the Highway Authority, who had decreed improvements along the London Road. This they were able to do with the aid of various bulletins and maps provided in advance.

The Great Service, which is scored for two five-part choirs (SAATB) and is a setting of music for Matins, Communion and Evensong, consists of seven movements, the Venite, Te Deum, Benedictus, Kyrie, Creed, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Meticulous preliminary organisation of all five parts was required; we were no doubt all aware of the need for division into cantores and decani, but it came as a surprise to your reviewer (and, no doubt, to others) that we were required to engage in an exercise in self-assessment and divide ourselves into leaders and followers. This was accomplished with commendable rapidity and proved to be well worth while, as the seating arrangements remained unaltered throughout the day, sparing us the continual va et vient that regularly occurs in workshops featuring polychoral music. However, before embarking on our exploration of the day’s programme, we were introduced to one of John’s attainments not previously (at least in your reviewer’s recollection) displayed to us - his mastery of the Wacky Warm-Up which placed him in the same class as such noted exponents of the genre as Robert Hollingworth and David Allinson-a series of positively Diabellian variations on the theme of ‘picketty-pocketty’, ending with an exhortation to render it in the style of Caruso.

We studied four movements of the Great Service, the Benedictus and Creed in the morning, and the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in the afternoon, using an edition specially prepared by Simon Lillystone. It appears from the internet that he is (or was) a counter-tenor in a group called Musica Contexta, which produced a well-reviewed recording entitled The Great Service in the Chapel Royal, released under the Chandos label in 2012.

It appeared, from an initial show of hands, that very few of us had previously encountered any movements of the Great Service other than the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. John told us that church music set to English texts (ECM) did not attain, and has not subsequently attained, the popularity of its Latin counterpart. The initial lack of enthusiasm accounts for the absence of any contemporary manuscripts and is the root cause of the mysteries surrounding the composition of the Great Service. As Fellowes observed (William Byrd, 2nd edition, 1948, p.128), ‘the scarcity of text, even allowing for loss and destruction, suggests that it was never widely used’, though he goes on to deduce from the existence of surviving text that it seemed certainly to have been used regularly at Durham, York and Worcester, and also to have been sung at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The current lack of acquaintance with it apparently derives from a combination of dislike on the part of the clergy for the ECM genre and a regrettable paucity of sufficiently agile altos. No solution to either of these problems was proposed.

Although the passing into law of the Act of Uniformity required the use of the ‘Book of Common Prayer and none other’ from the feast of Pentecost 1549, it did not, as has sometimes been asserted, require texts to be set so that there was ‘for every syllable a note’. While some early settings of canticles in the ECM genre were composed on that basis, Byrd, as the Great Service demonstrates in innumerable places, never felt himself to be constrained in that way. In fact, as John remarked, there is a decidedly madrigalian feeling to the Benedictus, and it is worth recalling, in that context, that Byrd was the first of the English madrigal composers, the abbreviated title ‘Psalms, Songs and Sonnets’ by which his 1588 collection is generally known obscuring the fact that it includes one of his best-known madrigals, Though Amaryllis dance in green. It is interesting that John should have detected a reminiscence of ‘came running down amain’ in that movement, because that phrase is found in Weelkes’ ‘As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending’ and it is Weelkes, along with Morley and Wilbye, whom Fellowes (The English Madrigal Composers, 2nd edition, 1948, p.169) identifies as influencing Byrd in his composition of madrigals.

In the four movements which we studied there are some features specific to individual movements-for instance, the Benedictus includes a most unusual grouping of voices (three altos and a tenor) for the passage ‘And thou child shall be called the prophet of the highest’ but there are many which emphasise the essential unity of the Great Service overall, whether or not the individual movements were composed separately over a period of many years. Thus, all four of the movements which we studied open (as does the Venite, also) with the same combination of voices (the bass being omitted in each case) with a very similar phrase. Byrd demonstrates his versatility in the six different settings of the doxology but, again emphasising the overall unity, the scale passages of the ‘Amen’ which concludes the Creed strongly resemble those at the conclusion of the Gloria in both the Benedictus and the Magnificat. Your reviewer gained the impression that John was more enthusiastic about the Creed after we had worked through it than before we started, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to disagree with his expressed view that in the evening canticles of the Great Service we have Byrd at his best.

We also briefly explored two pieces edited by John and set to English texts (O Lord, give ear, SAATTB, and Behold now, praise the Lord, SAATBB). The Latin text settings are from Cantiones Sacrae (1575), numbers 17 (memento homo, for Ash Wednesday, the original, suitably gloomy texts being taken from Ecclesiastes and Job) and 18 (laudate pueri, a vocal adaptation of a six part fantasia, with psalm texts) which John described as ‘neither an anthem nor a motet, but fun to sing’ – a judgment with which it was easy to agree.

The session after tea was devoted, as is usually the case, with a sing through, for which we had sufficient reserves of energy to manage successfully. We are, as always, greatly indebted to John for guiding us so expertly through territory which was to a considerable extent unknown to us, and we look forward keenly to our next venture into the unexplored hinterland of early music under his direction. Warm thanks are also due to Nicola Wilson-Smith for organising the event, to David King for assiduously supplying us with bulletins detailing the complications created by the road works, to Dag Bergman for making his local knowledge of means of access to Gladstone Road available by way of maps, and to the providers of morning and afternoon refreshments.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

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