William Byrd [c. 1540-1623]: Ave verum corpus á 4 | Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae, 3–5vv [London, 1605].
Four parts to perfection.
Four parts to perfection.
Philip Brett wrote about Byrd and his Gradualia:
«William Byrd, the leading composer in Elizabethan England, appears to have retired from active life at court around 1593, his fiftieth year. He moved his family from Harlington (near the present Heathrow airport) to a village on the other side of London deep in the Essex countryside. His new home at Stondon Massey was a few miles from Ingatestone, the more private of the two Essex seats of a landed magnate named Sir John Petre, one of Byrd’s richest patrons. Like Byrd and his family, the Petres were Roman Catholics, and Ingatestone was a protected centre where the Roman liturgy could be celebrated with little interference from hostile authorities. Byrd’s move also marked the beginning of a new phase in his composition. Motets of protest and tribulation, written in an expansive and often madrigalian style, and clearly aimed at the situation of the Roman Catholic minority in England, had been characteristic of the Cantiones Sacrae of 1589 and 1591. From 1593 onwards Byrd conceived and brought to completion an ambitious plan to provide music for the Roman liturgy (and for extra-liturgical devotions) in a more concentrated, terse style that in many ways suited the requirements of the Catholic reformers, especially the Jesuits to whom he seems to have been especially close.
The first works he completed in this characteristically thorough scheme were three settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, in three, four and five parts, published between 1593 and 1595. But the culmination came a decade later with two books of a collection entitled Gradualia and published in 1605 and 1607. The principal contents of these volumes are the Propers of the Mass (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia or Tract, Offertory, Communion, and sometimes the Sequence) for each of the principal feasts of the Roman Church year as well as for the votive Masses of the Blessed Virgin and the Holy Sacrament. One of the most notable features of this collection is that the texts are always those of the reformed Roman Missal of 1570. Byrd makes no attempt to rehabilitate the Sarum rite which was observed in most places in England before the Reformation and again during the reign of Mary I—even though he had paid direct tribute to England’s Catholic musical past by self-consciously making specific musical references to a Mass by John Taverner (c1495–1545) in his own four-part setting of the Ordinary. Characteristically for someone allied with the Jesuit party, however, his Gradualia eschews religious nostalgia for a rather strong dose of the militant spirit associated with Catholic reform.
The opening fascicle of Book I, containing music for five voices, is illustrative of this militancy. It opens with twenty-five settings of Latin texts that comprise the entire material of those parts of the Roman liturgy connected with the Blessed Virgin Mary. None of the festivals associated with her (other than the Visitation and the Purification, the latter renamed as the Presentation of Our Lord), and absolutely nothing of what Protestants regarded as the idolatrous devotion surrounding her, remained in the reformed English Church. After this formidable block of pieces occur a song and two motets. The song, Adoramus te Christe, is the setting of a text associated with the worship of the Holy Cross, and the two motets, Unam petii and Plorans plorabit, reflect the spirit of the ‘political’ motets of the 1589 and 1591 collections. The text of Plorans plorabit, which refers to a ‘captive flock’ and warns of the imminent downfall of a king and queen, would surely have been regarded as treason had it not come from a genuine biblical source. The fascicle concludes, moreover, with a setting of the Propers for the feast of All Saints, the growing significance of which for English Catholics was as a commemoration of their ever-increasing number of martyrs.
The Marian Masses that form the contents of this recording include not only the Marian Feasts generally authorised in 1605, but also the votive Masses associated with the Virgin. A votive Mass is a Mass offered for a particular intention or purpose, either on behalf of a group of people, or, as in this case, to a saint who was thought to possess special powers of entreaty at the throne of heaven. The votive Mass of the Virgin, often called ‘Lady Mass’, was traditionally offered on Saturdays and was not part of the office of the day, though its texts always reflected the progress of the church year.
The Feasts and votive Masses of the Virgin employ a revolving cycle of texts which come from a limited number of sources (Psalms 14, 23, 44 and 47, Luke chapters 1, 2 and 10, and single passages from Isaiah and Numbers). These texts recur over and over again on occasions when supplication to or celebration of the Virgin Mary transpires. In the printed Roman Graduals of the later sixteenth century, economies were made by printing each chant associated with these texts once only (usually under the heading of an important feast such as the Nativity of the Virgin), the singers being referred to the appropriate folio when they needed to sing that chant in another liturgical context.
Byrd emulated this system from his Gradual, but was able to take it much further because, ignoring the chant, he was free to make one polyphonic setting do for any replication of text. In the opening Mass of the Purification, for instance, the Introit and Gradual require two separate chants, but because they both employ the same verses of Psalm 47 (the Gradual stopping slightly earlier than the Introit), Byrd was able to make do with one setting for both. With characteristic doggedness, Byrd followed this scheme to its logical conclusion. In so doing he created ‘motets’ like Diffusa est gratia (22) that are a collection of verses never performed exactly as they stand on any single liturgical occasion. Gaudeamus omnes, which follows it, is the head of the ‘Assumption Introit’ joined unceremoniously to the rump of the Alleluia for that feast. And inevitably the composer made some mistakes, leaving out a phrase here (as in the Offertory of the Purification), reversing the order of a set of verses there (as in Alleluia, Ave Maria, Alleluia, Virga Iesse, whose verses are the wrong way round for the Eastertide votive Mass, one of the two occasions they serve).
The wonder is that Byrd managed to pull off this cut-and-paste scheme at all. For what it entailed musically was the writing of twenty-five pieces, many of them extensive, in the same mode and with the same voice ranges. It also entailed striving for a certain unity of expressive effect—not of course because of any anachronistic ideals of musical organization but simply to observe liturgical decorum, a quality which Byrd’s intimate, low-keyed and ultimately rewarding polyphony admirably reflects. This music has a restrained but intense devotional spirit for which parallels are hard to find. It repays frequent and attentive hearings.
These twenty-five pieces, then, contain the music for Mass at eight feasts of the Church (including one with a Vigil—Mass celebrated the day before—and two with Octaves—Masses celebrated during the week terminating with the eighth day after the feast), and for the five different seasons of Lady Mass. Of these Byrd acknowledged only four feasts and two (or possibly three) votive Masses in the headings he distributed somewhat laconically throughout the publication. The feasts (in the order of the print) are those of the Purification (2 February), the Nativity of the Virgin (8 September), the Annunciation (25 March), and the Assumption (15 August). The votive Masses are those of Advent and ‘post Nativitatem Domini’ (i.e. after Christmas) with a cryptic and incorrect reference to the season after Septuagesima Sunday. The Nativity’s Propers were also sung on the Feasts of the Visitation (2 July) and the Conception (8 December). The Feasts of the Dedication of Our Lady of the Snow (5 August) and of the Presentation (21 November) derive their Mass Propers from the votive Mass of the season (although Venetian Graduals from which Byrd worked assign to the Presentation the Propers of the Nativity). These were the only Marian occasions generally authorized by the Roman Missal in 1605; Catholics familiar with the Missal immediately before Vatican II will be surprised by the modesty of the late sixteenth-century liturgy of the Virgin compared with its later, more prodigal manifestations.
Byrd’s rubrics are as laconic as his liturgical headings, and a good deal less frequent, but they confirm the nature of this cryptic scheme. Following it through and singing it feast by feast and Lady Mass by Lady Mass would entail enormous repetition, especially of such perennial texts as the verse ‘Eructavit cor meum’. With the aid of technology we are fortunately able to preserve Byrd’s order and to do our own cutting and pasting at the controls of the compact-disc player.
The system is particularly advantageous to modern listeners because it puts them in a position comparable to that of contemporary users of Byrd’s publication. By those for whom the liturgy means nothing (and there were contemporary Anglican music lovers who presumably enjoyed these pieces as ‘Latin songs’ without scrutinizing them for liturgical function), the music can be heard in its printed order with no repetition. The care Byrd took to shape the pieces (ending settings of the Gradual verse, for instance, with a full-voiced alleluia, even though that alleluia belongs, liturgically speaking, to its own subsequent verse) is an indication that he was concerned about his numbers as individual pieces of music, observing an aesthetic decorum which governed all his actions.
Those who do care about liturgical occasion, or who wish to explore the ideal scheme that lurked behind Byrd’s cryptic presentation, have the ability with the track guide to realize any aspect of the scheme in a way comparable to that available to a contemporary Roman Catholic extremely well versed in the 1570 Missal. It could be argued that the repetition of the Introit after the psalm verse and doxology ought to have been obligatory, but that would have meant another disc and the impossibility of easily exploring the more ingenious and out-of-the-way aspects of Byrd’s transfer scheme. As it is, the interested student of Byrd may compare the effect of the Nativity and Advent votive Mass Propers with or without the alleluias which occur with them in the print but which belong only to Paschal time (between Easter and Pentecost); and such portmanteau numbers as Diffusa est gratia can be distributed into their correct liturgical allocations instead of being heard as a lump.
For those who tend to regard Gradualia (or any other historical document) as unambiguously intended and to interpret it accordingly, history has preserved a suitably enigmatic piece of evidence. Among contemporary manuscripts which contain pieces from Gradualia, one (and only one) is given over largely to a copy of the contents of the first book. It comes from the household of a Roman Catholic squire of north Norfolk, Edward Paston (1550–1630). By a supreme stroke of historical irony it includes among its many pieces no single set of Propers: there is always one piece missing, and of course this missing link can indicate a variety of explanations. But it is clear that even among the circles in which Byrd was most likely to be appreciated (I have argued elsewhere that Byrd wrote songs celebrating events in Paston’s family life), the understanding of his grand design may well have been less complete or more complicated than we can now appreciate.
It is fortunate that we can recapture an ideal form of that design today, and follow through the many permutations of the material in this kaleidoscopic collection of pieces. We will perhaps acknowledge, while doing so, the extraordinary courage it must have taken to publish the book at all during a time when, as it turned out during the fateful events of 5 November 1605, simply being Roman Catholic was itself grounds for suspicion of treason and sedition. In the aftermath of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, a man from Cambrai named Charles de Ligny was arrested at an inn near the Tower of London and thrown into Newgate prison ‘on account of certain papistical books written by William Byrd, and dedicated to the Seigneur Henry Houardo (Howard), Earl of Northampton’, which were found on him, i.e. the partbooks of the first book of Gradualia. It is possible that the book was hurriedly withdrawn or recalled—only one copy of the original edition survives. But as early as 1607 Byrd could publish a second book of the collection, and in 1610 he managed to reissue both books with a fresh imprint. It is difficult to assess the true impact on an illustrious citizen of the effect of religious persecution and political coercion during an age as far distant as Jacobean England, but Byrd’s dogged pursuit of his Roman Catholic faith and of his grand musical design is a special illustration from those difficult times of the power of the human spirit and the intensity of the artistic endeavour that it can engender.»
In words of David Skinner:
«Perhaps the most popular and widely performed of all Byrd’s compositions is the exquisitely understated Ave verum corpus. Written in G dorian against the mixolydian Propers it is an almost unique example of modal mismatch in the Gradualia. As befits Byrd’s earlier devotional motets for penitence Ave verum corpus contains intense homophonic statements coupled with lucid counterpoint (most notably at the plea ‘miserere mei’), which suggests that the work may significantly predate its publication. The lesser-known companion Hymn O salutaris hostia is also thought to be an early work. Here Byrd fully exploits his technical mastery of interlocking imitative phrases; the polyphony gradually intensifies and with the words ‘bella premunt’ climaxes with trumpet-like entries.»
At last, Peter Phillips said:
«Finally we come to a composition from the 1605 Gradualia, a set of liturgical settings which were amongst the last things Byrd wrote. The famous hymn to the Blessed Sacrament, customarily sung as a Communion motet, Ave verum corpus, has the same intensity of expression as the Mass for four voices, though its compositional style is even more direct. Here he took a leaf out of the Protestants’ book and set the words in chords, so that they may be heard. True, they are in Latin, but every Catholic knew the meaning of this text. The only slight elaboration in the music is at the words ‘miserere mei’, where there is some simple imitation between the voices and a beautiful semitonal clash in the harmony.
The music on this disc has shown that Byrd was capable both of great complexity and great simplicity; but for many people there is enough power in the Ave verum corpus for them to need nothing more.»
This is a fantastic live performance by Stile Antico, recorded in concert at the Wigmore Hall on 30th May 2013 and later broadcast by Sky Arts. Their sonority is simply exquisite. Stile Antico is for me one of the best five vocal ensembles in the world. Renaissance polyphony is simply stunning in their voices and versions. Here, elegance, delicacy, expression and an impressive and an impressive and deep knowledge of the characteristics of the particular language of Byrd's compositions.
One of the best pieces in Western Music History in voices of one of the best ensembles in this moment.