Wednesday, August 23, 2006

That Byrd Festival

Here is the full program for the 9th Annual William Byrd Festival in Portland, Oregon (August 12-27, 2006) William Mahrt, president of the CMAA, is on the faculty, as is Sacred Music contributor Kerry McCarthy.

The program alone is worth keeping and printing. Particularly intriguing are these notes on Byrd's wonderful Masses for 3,4, and 5 voices.

The three Masses and the two books of Gradualia, published over fifteen years, were Byrd's major contribution to the Roman rite. This music is quite unlike his earlier Cantiones sacrae. It is resilient enough to be sung by a cast of dozens in a vast Gothic cathedral, but it was written for the intimate, even secretive atmosphere of domestic worship, to be performed by a small group of skilled amateurs (which included women, according to contemporary accounts) and heard by a relatively small congregation. Although such worship could be dangerous — even a capital offense in some cases — Byrd went further than merely providing music. There are many records of his participation in illegal services.

A Jesuit missionary describes a country house in Berkshire in 1586: "The gentleman was also a skilled musician, and had an organ and other musical instruments and choristers, male and female, members of his household. During these days it was just as if we were celebrating an uninterrupted Octave of some great feast. Mr. Byrd, the very famous English musician and organist, was among the company...."

In view of such events, it is astonishing that he was allowed to live as a free man, much less keep his office in the Chapel Royal and the benefices associated with it. Shortly after the Gunpowder Plot was uncovered in November 1605, an unfortunate traveller was arrested in a London pub in possession of “certain papistical books written by William Byrd, and dedicated to Lord Henry Howard, earl of Northampton”—an unmistakable reference to the first set of Gradualia. The man was thrown into Newgate, one of the most notorious prisons in England.

Byrd and his family suffered no such treatment, but court records show him involved in endless lawsuits, mostly over his right to own property, and paying heavy fines. The reputation he had built as a young man in London must have helped him through his later years.

Artists often claimed a sort of vocational immunity to the controversies of their age — John Taverner, implicated in the radical Oxford Protestant movement of the late 1520s, escaped a heresy trial with the plea that he was “but a musician” — but the simple act of creating religious art put them in the center of the fray. Byrd was talented and fortunate enough to continue his work, and to gain the esteem of nearly all his contemporaries.

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