Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Byrd Festival: Final Observations

The Byrd Festival is Portland, Oregon, continues this week and concludes on Sunday evening with a final concert at St. Stephen's, featuring more selections from Byrd's Gradualia of 1607, sung by Cantores in Ecclesia and directed by Richard Marlow. I have already left Portland so I cannot be there. This post, then, wraps up my live blogging of the events that I was able to attend, and I would like to close with just a few summary comments.

All music before the time of Bach is at a cultural disadvantage given prevailing biases, and in the case of Byrd, the disadvantage is intensified by the extent of his liturgical output. So when Dean Applegate and Richard Marlow set out to create a Byrd Festival more than ten years ago, they were engaged in a heroically implausible effort. It is easy to forget this. When institutions grow and become established, there is a temptation for newcomers to take them for granted, as if they are just supposed to be this way: as if the interest, funding, and talent are just part of the landscape.

The fact is that the very existence of this institution is the product of a dream backed by hard work and dedication, with countless hours of unpaid labor poured into this at every level. Of course it is still underfunded, very much so. It would have been so easy at the beginning of this enterprise or anywhere along the way for the organizers to just observe that there is no real payoff to doing this sort of thing. But they didn't. They keep pressing on, and the audiences and enthusiasm grow year by year.

And why go to all this work? It has to do with the very biases I mentioned above. If Byrd is to assume his rightful place in the history of art, he must have his champions, people who are willing to step out front and let his music be performed or heard. There was a time, we must remember, when Bach himself needed such a champion and Mendelssohn was there to become that, and all generations following are grateful. So too does Byrd need people to step forward and put his music forward so that it can assume its rightful place.

The organizers have done even more than that. They have taken upon themselves the task of showing that this is not only wonderful music but also that it is music that is liturgically viable in our times. To me, this effort is deserving of special praise because Renaissance polyphony itself, though extolled in the documents of Vatican II, has been largely shelved in the postconciliar period, much to the impoverishment of Catholic liturgical music.

So, yes, there are several herculean tasks that this institution has taken on: show the magnificence of Byrd's music, demonstrate its cultural relevance in our times, illustrate its use in liturgy, and provide a setting for the continued cultivation and promotion of polyphonic choral music in worship as performed by the best singers and organists.

So this Byrd Festival has taken many tasks, and they have worked to maintain a good balance between them all. The festival, then, features pure concerts settings for Byrd's organ works and secular and religious songs. They provide choral concerts in which Byrd's liturgical music can be appreciate as pure music. Then also there are the many liturgical service—both Catholic and Anglican—in which it is shown how Byrd's music is eminently suitable to the task of worship. How is it possible that this enormous enterprise can so completely center on the work of a single composer? All I can say is that it works, and that's because Byrd's output is so varied and brilliant it can hold up to this level of focus.

It is a different task from, for example, the CMAA sacred music colloquium. Its purpose is not so much teaching and singing by non-specialists. It is more of a demonstration program to show the riches that Byrd's music has to offer. But the festival organizers have been very kind and wise to hold many receptions following events where enthusiasts can gather and get to know the singers, directors, and each other.

As a result, the organizers have managed the implausible task of creating an institution that has contributed mightily to several sectors: early music enthusiasts, academic musicologists, liturgical scholars, musicians working in the sacred music field, as well as regular people who desire more meaningful worship environments. This is no easy task, but the Byrd Festival has accomplished this. The conference volume A Byrd Festival, edited by Richard Turbet, nicely illustrates the integration of all these goals.

It's not as if music not by Byrd is banned here. And I can easily imagine that in the years ahead, there will be more expansion into other English repertoire from the period and possibly into other regions and traditions as well. There will be an ever greater variety of ensembles taking a role. There will be discussions about format and the problem that in these times, no one can really take off two and half weeks for festival event that is so spread out. There are tradeoffs with any choice about the future, and there are likely to be difficult decisions ahead.

It is important to remember that something as spectacular as this institution comes with no guarantee of perpetuity. Every year, it is something that must be worked for, struggled for, paid for. It is always a leap of faith. It could come to an end the instant that it stops being supported in this way. This cannot be permitted to happen. This is why the Byrd Festival deserves the support of everyone who believes that beauty and truth can find voice in our culture in our times.

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