Program Notes: Byrd’s THE GREAT SERVICE

Program Notes, THE GREAT SERVICE, William Byrd, by Glenn Peirson

Great Indeed, program notes for The Great Service, by William Byrd (1543 -1623)

Tactus has wanted to perform The Great Service by William Byrd for some time, but there are complicating factors in making this a reality.  Byrd’s grand Anglican work is not only great in the modern, commendatory sense of the word, but also ‘great’ in the 16th century sense as well.  It is a very big work, much more ‘heron’ than ‘humming-byrd’.  To this day it stands as the largest and most elaborate setting of this Anglican rite.

To be fair, The Great Service is not one service, nor are its particular origins and performing practice understood.  The Church of England was in its infancy during Byrd’s career.  Byrd was, in fact, born four years before the death of Henry VIII.  The short reign of Edward VI saw the establishment of the Book of Common Prayer and the Royal Visitation of all cathedrals, where broad recommendations (of strong intent) were made regarding all aspects of worship.  Liturgy was to be simplified, anglicized, modernized, and streamlined.  There was to be less outward splendour and more inward emphasis.  Aside from ditching Latin as the religious vernacular, music was the primary object of liturgical reformation.

This was drastic change for musicians.  Composers who were steeped in the long and rich medieval foundation for sacred music were suddenly losing freedom of expression, breadth of liturgical forms, and touch with the full-flowering of Renaissance music-making.  Sacred music in England had become an abstraction, albeit an extremely beautiful one.  The famed theologian Erasmus noted that ‘modern’ music is so constructed that the congregation cannot hear one distinct word.  The choristers themselves do not understand what they are singing, yet according to priests and monks it constitutes the whole of religion ‘in college and monastery it is still the same: music, nothing but music.’  The Marian antiphons and Magnificats of The Eton Choirbook show music of uncompromising quality, yet also music divorced from its words – text as vehicle for an almost narcissistic flourishing and resplendence of sound.

At Lincoln Cathedral (where later Byrd was organist) the Visitors instructed that there shall be ‘no anthems of our Lady or other Saints, but only of our Lord, and them only in Latin; but choosing out the best and most sounding to Christian religion they shall turn the same into English, setting thereunto a plain and distinct note for every syllable one; they shall sing them and none other.’  This is abundantly clear:  no more quasi-improvisational, self-aggrandizing, over-the-top virtuosity.  Instead:  the inelegance of English text, directness of word with sound, textures that should never obscure a syllable.

This posed a personal problem for the devoutly Catholic Byrd.  How could he worship through composition and yet meet the requirements of his work?  How could he compose in Latin, express his spirit, and avoid the wrath of religious authorities?  The anti-papist vehemence of Henry VIII was followed by the Protestant consolidation of Edward, the chaotic Catholic reimposition of Mary, and then the stable and glorious reign of Elizabeth I.  Byrd was 15 when Elizabeth assumed the throne and it was her long-sighted approach to matters liturgical that allowed him to thrive in all facets of his music-making.  The superb and prayerful anthem ‘O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth’ shows Byrd overtly and humbly honouring his monarch with use of text from Psalm 21.  He found favour with Elizabeth and presented as publicly Anglican while privately Catholic.  The radical reformists and staunch Catholics were unhappy with the Elizabethan monarchy, but were safe, and the majority of English subjects were very content.  Elizabeth enjoyed the splendour and ceremony of worship at the Chapel Royal.  This freedom or worship allowed Byrd to channel energy into some of his most memorable and skillful works – a sort of ‘pop’ list of greatest hits ‘ Ave Verum Corpus, the 3,4, and 5 voiced masses, all likely privately performed and in Latin.  At the same time, he wrote music of the Anglican prescription, reaching its zenith with The Great Service.

The Church of England compressed the Daily Office of the Roman (Sarum) rite into two services:  Mattins and Evensong.  The morning service incorporated the Catholic Matin canticles of the Venite (Psalm 95) and the Te Deum, as well as the canticle sung at Lauds – the Benedictus (Zechariah’s song from Luke).  The Jublilate (Psalm 100) was set as an alternative to the Benedictus, but rarely used in the 16th century.  During the Communion the Creed may be sung, though more common to sing the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.  Byrd set the Creed and Kyrie.  The evening service comprised the Magnificat from the Roman Vespers and the Nunc Dimittis from Compline (song of Simeon also from Luke).  Essentially, Anglicanism took a ‘best-of’ approach to the Catholic liturgy and created what has become and remains to this day its morning and evening worship format.

Byrd took this English service, and its restriction to simple word-painting, and created his Anglican masterpiece.  He added dimension by playing with text repetition and the possibilities of a flexible double choir.  The common choral set-up of Mean-Alto-Alto-Tenor-Bass was used for each choir, named Decani and Cantoris [set-up].  Tactus is organized into two choirs of 8 voices ‘ 2 of S-A-T-B for each.  This gives added responsibility to our altos, who when split carry their part individually (but altos like to flex their vocal muscles anyway).  But Byrd’s use of these choirs is ingenious as at times he will steal a voice from one choir to add to the texture of the other, e.g. ‘As he promised to our forefather Abraham’ in the Magnificat is sung by A-A-A-T-B, using 2 altos and 1 tenor from Decani and the 3rd alto and bass from Cantoris.  He constantly shifts colour, density, and imitation of sound by playing with these possibilities, including sections sung by low voices and others by high, and the alternation of ‘full’ and ‘verse’ (solo) passages.  Within the parameters of the new Anglican palate, Byrd’s composition is highly creative.  He likely starting composing the work relatively early, before 1580, with the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis later, as demonstrated by their more mature, confident, and elaborate schemes.

Very few sources survive for The Great Service; its circulation would have been limited in the Anglican infancy and its musical demands required a choir of the stature of the Chapel Royal (again showing the favour Byrd must have had with Elizabeth I).  For almost 300 years, from the Civil War cessation of choral services to its rediscovery in the 1920s, Byrd’s masterwork lay dormant and unknown.  Puritanism in Byrd’s day pulled a blanket over any notoriety for The Great Service, and performing editions have been of sketchy quality ever since.  The first set of scores Tactus ordered, aside from their poor lay-out, actually fell apart in the hand!

We have overcome these odds, both historical and logistical, and are most pleased to perform this obviously great work, likely one of the rare times ever in Canada.  Church of Our Lady is the perfect venue tonight, as the building embodies the English cathedral ideal, while as a Catholic sanctuary it rightly acknowledges William Byrd’s personal faith.  The Great Service is the quintessential English distillate of the medieval Catholic Daily Office.  It is the great link in an ancient and ongoing church music lineage.  It is truly great, in all senses of the word.

Glenn Peirson

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