Wednesday, September 24, 2008

First impressions of Byrd propers

Our schola is now working on its second of the Byrd propers, these glorious jewels of the English renaissance that have been sadly neglected. There is the problem that sung propers in general somehow have gotten short shrift. Even preconciliar, they became Psalm tones for most parishes. Postconciliar, they were replaced by idle musicians who far preferred to consider their favorite hymn "another appropriate song" and so tossed the propers out completely.

It was so bad that the USCCB issued a now-defunct document called Music in Catholic Worship that evidence no awareness of propers at all. (Why, by the way, is it still up on the USCCB site with no notification of when it was written, how it came to be, or that it no longer has standing?) (ADDED NOTE: The link came down after this post, so Music in Catholic Worship survives only on the Wayback Machine.)

Adding to the neglect is the tendency to think of sung propers as chant-only musical moments. Singing them in polyphonic settings just hasn't been the thing. Other factors contributing to the neglect: English music has been generally bypassed in favor of the Continent, and also these polyphonic propers are too difficult for beginning choirs.

We've been working on two pieces from Byrd's Gradualia, to sing not as propers but as seasonal motets (we are a regular schola after all). So far we have tackled Confirma Hoc and Optimam Partem. This is a post of personal reflections on what seems to make Byrd's music different.

First, the music is indeed difficult and is only suitable for intermediate level scholas. We are doing three weeks of rehearsal to prepare one motet, which is a rather serious investment of time. The intervals are tricky and not always intuitive. Byrd has preserved the modal character of the chant so you have to have a real fix on the mechanics of the pitches. Entrances require a great deal of confidence. The ranges and voicings are demanding. To make it all seem natural and normal, much less effortless, requires special ability and time.

Second, the part writing is more voice dependent than music you get from Victoria or Palestrina or others. I've noticed that it is extremely difficult to rehearse this music in sections, for example. The cues for entrances and pitches come from other sections, and without those sections, the music makes little sense. No part is extraneous. Every note from every singer is part of the mechanical operation here, an essential gear. We might say that the music is vertically composed. So if not everyone is at rehearsal, there is probably not much reason to even pull the music out. This is different from other music of the period.

Third, this music is unusually stout in the sense that it holds up to vigorous singing. It's like an erector set made of hardened steel. You can sing with great forcefulness; indeed, the music nearly demands it. One might say that the music can be "man handled" in a way and otherwise sung with a fiery intensity. This is different from polyphony from the same period from others such as Palestrina and Guerrero, which sometimes seems brittle and easy broken when the fire is turned up on it or the sections become imbalanced.

Overall, I must say that I've been blown away by the symphonic genius of these pieces. There is a very high musical payoff that comes with learning them and singing them. We sang Confirma a few weeks back, and a number of people mentioned it afterward as a notable moment in the Mass. This is certainly not mood music. It makes a strong and lasting impression. Byrd believed in the propers, it is clear, and he thought they should stand out as text and as art. He has left us many masterpieces to make this possible.

Scholas: even if the time is not yet there, know that these jewels await.

For more on Byrd and his musical legacy, see A Byrd Celebration.

Also, please see this excellent post at Cantemus Domino on the the need for composers to follow Byrd's example.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: