Sunday, August 05, 2007

William Byrd: The Queen's Servant, but God's First

I ran across this article by Matthew Alexander about one of the most well-known composers of the English Renaissance, William Byrd:

The Queen’s Servant, but God’s First

Many of you may already know that William Byrd was a Roman Catholic composer who lived during the Elizabethan persecutions in England. Byrd made a name for himself writing music for the established Church of England, but being a loyal and devoted Roman Catholic, he also wrote some of his most beautiful work for the Roman Catholic underground. The article beautifully illustrates some of the ways in which Byrd would embed expressions of his Catholicism in his intricately woven polyphony.
[William Byrd] was a fixture in the liturgical life of the recusant safe-houses, the great country homes of Catholic aristocrats, which served as 16th-century catacombs riddled with secret chambers to hide fugitive priests. For these communities he wrote Mass settings and motets (in Latin), managing to publish and even furtively to perform them. His finest masterpieces are perhaps his Masses for Three, Four, and Five Voices, which he wrote for the underground liturgies, the straitened circumstances of which pressed themselves intimately upon the compositions...

It is in these Masses that we hear some of Byrd’s most poignant expressions of his Catholicism. One especially powerful instance occurs in the Credo movement of the Mass for Four Voices. This is the Nicene Creed, the Mass’s profession of faith, the end of which offers the line, et unam sanctam Catholicam et Apostolicam Ecclesiam (“and in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”). Byrd’s setting of this phrase is movingly defiant. For the preceding section, and indeed, much of the movement, Byrd has written elegant counterpoint, but now he pulls the four voices together and brings them to a dramatic closing cadence. Then, for this new phrase, he briefly changes the texture to one that is essentially homophonic, a common Renaissance device to indicate emphasis. The sopranos lead with the words et unam followed almost immediately by the other three parts together on the same text. The phrase climaxes with the word Catholicam, which the sopranos lightly articulate and the other voices forcefully repeat as one. By setting one voice against three, Byrd masterfully harnesses the emphatic qualities of both polyphony and homophony: the text repetition of the former and the clarity and unity of the latter.
These masses are among my favorite compositions. In addition to his masses, I also love Byrd's composition of the Ave Verum Corpus. Our parish choir became quite used to singing it during the past year.

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