Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Byrd's "Great Service"

Renaissance England’s most brilliant Catholic composer, William Byrd, also happened to be Renaissance England’s most brilliant Anglican composer. The most excellent example of the latter is the Great Service, an apt name for this large-scale work but not the name it had when it was composed. It was simply a set of service music most likely composed for Queen Elizabeth in her court, performed in 1598 and probably completed certainly by 1604.

The ironies are intense. The war on the Roman religion was in full swing. Even as Byrd’s Great Service was being sung, people were being arrested for being caught with this composer’s own setting of polyphonic propers for Mass. It has to strike anyone looking at this period as completely bizarre that this Catholic musician would have a royal appointment under Elizabeth, but his talent unlocks the mystery. This service—the pieces of it that I’ve heard in addition to motets such a "Sing Joyfully"—pretty much explain why he was kept around.

Richard Turbet, writing in A Byrd Celebration, calls this piece “the jewel in the crown of Anglican music.” He further compares it to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, Beethoven’s 9th, and Mahler’s 8th. He points out that it can’t have been lost on Elizabeth that Byrd’s music would assist in securing the cultural legacy of her reign. I would like add that while this motive in protecting Byrd might not have been praiseworthy, it has more going for it than modern political ambitions. Better polyphonic services than destructive foreign wars!

At the Byrd Festival, we attended Choral Evensong at the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. This service included the Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and Preces and Responses from the Great Service. It was conducted by Richard Marlow, who conducted Evensong for many years at Trinity College.

I heard these first in rehearsal and found myself completely astonished, as in “I can’t believe what I’m hearing.” They are scored for two choirs in 10 parts, a very large scale setting but never does the music become too rich or thick for comprehension. Byrd manages to add voices and complexity in a way that adds not decadence but rather increases the sense of decorum and majesty.

It was right that these pieces were sung at the Byrd Festival in a liturgical setting rather than as pure concert pieces. And this was real liturgy, not just some historical recreation. People in Oregon attended not just to listen but to pray. Some accommodation, then, had to be made for the time and place, and thus was “O Lord, Save the Queen” in the Responses changed to “O Lord, Save the State”—an interesting illustration of limits of changing venues.

I can easily see why composing for this setting would have been very difficult for Byrd as a Catholic in those times of upheaval. In our own times, it should be easier for Catholics to draw from this well-developed and legitimate tradition. It should be, but is it? It is an enduring mystery why Catholics, in the postconciliar years, at the time when English was introduced into the liturgy, did not turn to the religious tradition that had been doing it—and perfecting it—for nearly 500 years.

It seems that they turned to anything and everything but that tradition. In trying to reinvent the wheel, Catholics managed to put together some pretty awful contraptions. The Church permitted the vernacular, and then the English translation committees, their friendly publishers, and their affiliated composers socked it to us good and hard.

Ancient feuds die hard, and the animosity that the Catholic ethos has for the Anglican liturgy remains evident. In Catholic cathedrals and parishes, it is sometimes the case that when high-quality English-language music is presented, you hear muttering about how this is Anglican and not Catholic music such as “One Bread, One Body.”

So I was very pleased for this rare chance to attend the Evensong with Byrd’s astonishing music. It helped me realize how much that Catholics, so long as we insist on using the vernacular in our hymns, psalms, and dialogues, have to learn from the Anglican tradition—and if, as a Catholic worshiping in the ordinary form, you bristle at that comment, you illustrate the point. A bit more deference to those with more experience would help us all.

(Here is one version of it conducted by James O'Donnell; also, here are more notes on the Great Service.)

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