Thursday, January 09, 2020

Christmas Music of William Byrd: Guest Article by Roseanne Sullivan

Our thanks once again to one of our frequent guest contributors, Roseanne Sullivan, for sharing with us this article on one of the great English Catholic composers, William Byrd. It was originally published in the Christmas 2019 edition of The Latin Mass Magazine, and is reproduced here with their kind permission, in a slightly edited form.

In honor of the season, this article takes a comparative look at the circumstances in which two of composer William Byrd’s works for Christmastide were created. The first piece is an English carol from a songbook that Byrd dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I’s chancellor. The second is his polyphonic setting of a Christmas day Mass from a collection that he published late in his life, which he dedicated to a baron who secretly held prohibited Catholic Masses in his home.

A medallion portrait traditionally said to be of William Byrd by Gerard Vandergucht, ca. 1750, based on an original by Nicola Francesco Haym. No authentic contemporary likeness of the composer exists. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 
William Byrd (1543-1623), as you know, was a brilliant English Catholic composer, whose music is still treasured and often performed today during traditional Latin Masses—and also in Ordinary Form Masses that in some places are reverently celebrated in Latin. For example, the Saint Ann Choir of Palo Alto, California, directed by Stanford Musicology Professor and New Liturgical Movement publisher, William P. Mahrt, often sings Byrd Masses on feast days, and motets composed by him on Sundays throughout the year at Ordinary Form Latin Masses. Saint Mary’s Church in Norwalk, Connecticut, sings Byrd Masses at their regularly scheduled Mass in both the Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form Masses. Even the volunteer choir at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Oratory that I attend in San José, which is dedicated to the Extraordinary Form, sings Byrd’s “Mass for Three Voices” at traditional Latin High Masses on special occasions, and frequently sings his Ave Verum Corpus and other motets by him at Sunday Masses.

Byrd led a paradoxical life, to say the least. He was a Catholic who worked for Protestant Queen Elizabeth as a court composer and musician, and was prominent among Elizabeth’s Protestant courtiers. But he also composed music that he and his harried Catholic co-religionists would sing at Masses, which they were forced to celebrate covertly in fear of a knock at the door, imprisonment, steep fines, and even death. It’s almost miraculous that he kept his job and his life.

As Dr Kerry McCarthy, a scholar and singer of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, noted in her highly readable 2013 biography titled Byrd, he was born at “an unusually volatile moment in English history.” (All quotations in this article are from this work.) The year of his birth, 1540, was the year that King Henry VIII “finished dismantling the monasteries and convents.” Monastic libraries were looted and their books used for scrap paper and even as toilet paper, so totally despised were the ancient liturgies and music of the Catholic Church. “1540 was the year the workshop of Hans Holbein produced the iconic ‘Rome portrait’ of the forty-nine-year-old Henry VIII, glowering at the viewer with fists clenched, the massive canvas (94 by 53 inches) barely able to contain his bulk.”

The ruins of Fountains Abbey near Aldfield in North Yorkshire, one of the largest and most important Cistercian abbeys in England until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. This view shows the abbey church from within the ruins of the former infirmary. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by DrMoschi, CC BY-SA 4.0)
It is hard to deny the obvious similarity between the attitude of destruction of traditional Catholic liturgy and music that was in progress when Byrd was born and the widespread disdain and neglect on the part of many since the Second Vatican Council for the beautiful Gregorian chant and polyphonic music that had evolved as an intrinsic part of the Mass and the Divine Office over the centuries.

“[Byrd] was as well known in his day as any court poet or playwright, and just as close to the centers of power. A monumental painting made in 1604, illustrates the point nicely.” Although he is not pictured, Byrd had close ties to many portrayed in this painting. “At a distance of more than four hundred years, the atmosphere of luxury, gravity, and political tension is still palpable in this painting. That was the world in which Byrd’s music was created and performed.”

During his youth, the traditional Latin Mass was banned outright, replaced with a stripped down English service. “What had taken place daily at every pre-Reformation altar, from the humblest parish church to the greatest cathedral, was now a rare and dangerous luxury.”

As court composer, William Byrd published a wide variety of music. Protestants at that time allowed polyphonic settings of Psalm texts, so most of the religious works he published were motets that set Psalm texts in Latin or English. He also published religious songs in English.

Byrd not-so-subtly thumbed his nose at the Protestant majority by his choice of texts, many of which were about throwing off oppressors and pleading for God to rescue (an allegorical) Jerusalem. Some were ‘gallows texts’—Psalm verses that were well known among Catholics as the last words of priests martyred during the persecution of the Church in England during the Reformation.

“Lullaby,” a Christmas Carol

In 1588, Byrd published an elegant songbook, Psalms, Sonnets and Songs; according to McCarthy, this may have been part of an attempt to reestablish his reputation at court. “He spent most of the decade under constant suspicion of illegal Catholic activities.” The title page reads in part “Songs very rare and newly composed are here published for the recreation of all such as delight in music, by William Byrd, one of the gentlemen of the Queen’s Majesty’s honorable Chapel. With the privilege of the royal majesty.”

Fortunately for Byrd’s reputation, the songbook was a great success, and his English Christmas carol from that songbook, “Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby,” became an enduring favorite. The Earl of Worcester wrote fourteen years later, in 1602, that “we are frolic [joyful] here in court ... Irish tunes are at the time more pleasing, but in winter Lullaby, an old song of Mr. Byrd’s, will be more in request, as I think.”

Remembering Byrd’s earlier thinly-disguised protests in the texts of his Psalm settings, it is tempting to see a similar vein in the “Lullaby,” with this line, “O woe and woeful heavy day when wretches have their will!”, and a prediction that even though the wicked king sought to kill the King (Jesus), the Son of God would reign, “whom tyrants none can kill.”

Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby: Lyrics
1. My sweet little Baby, what meanest Thou to cry?
Be still, my blessed Babe, though cause Thou hast to mourn,
Whose blood most innocent to shed the cruel king has sworn;
And lo, alas! behold what slaughter he doth make,
Shedding the blood of infants all, sweet Saviour, for Thy sake.
A King, a King is born, they say, which King this king would kill.

Refrain: O woe and woeful heavy day when wretches have their will! Lulla, la-lulla, lulla, lullaby.

2. Three kings this King of kings to see are come from far,
To each unknown, with offerings great, by guiding of a star;
And shepherds heard the song which angels bright did sing.
Giving all glory unto God for coming of this King,
Which must be made away — King Herod would Him kill. Refrain.

3. Lo, lo, my little Babe, be still, lament no more:
From fury Thou shalt step aside, help have we still in store;
We heavenly warning have some other soil to seek;
From death must fly the Lord of life, as lamb both mild and meek;
Thus must my Babe obey the king that would Him kill. Refrain.

4. But thou shalt live and reign, as sibyls hath foresaid,
As all the prophets prophesy, whose mother, yet a maid
And perfect virgin pure, with her breasts shall upbread
Both God and man that all hath made, the Son of heavenly seed,
Whom caitiffs none can ‘tray, whom tyrants none can kill. Refrain.

Third Mass of Christmas Day, Puer Natus Est

In 1607, nineteen years after “Lullaby,” and about a decade after he published his still-famous settings for the Ordinary of the Mass, Byrd published his polyphonic setting of the Latin propers for the Third Mass of Christmas Day, Puer Natus Est. This was included along with various Christmas motets in the second volume of Gradualia, a large collection of his settings of the Propers for major feasts, published in two volumes in 1605 and 1607.

McCarthy noted that Byrd’s version of the Introit Puer Natus Est was unique among his compositions for the following reasons. In Gregorian chant, multiple singers sing the same melody together at exactly the same pitch. When polyphonic music developed with multiple voice lines, Gregorian chant was used as a single cantus firmus (a “fixed song”) around which multi-voiced improvisation were developed. Byrd departed from that cantus firmus tradition in most of his polyphonic compositions, using melodies from sources other than chant, with one exception, the Puer Natus Est Mass.

The Introit begins by quoting the Gregorian chant for the day (Puer natus est nobis/A child is born for us) in three of the four voices. “This gesture seems to have been a brief nod to the old tradition of chant-based polyphonic Mass Propers, something that Byrd never took up again in quite the same way.”

The following bit of history gives a vivid glimpse into the risks Byrd and his fellow Catholics were taking. In 1605, after publication of the first part of the Gradualia, a French traveler named Charles de Ligny wrote home that he had attended a musical evening during which Byrd played the organ and other musical instruments, together with the Jesuit Henry Garnett, some other Jesuits, and English gentlemen. De Ligny was arrested and briefly thrown into Newgate prison “on account of certain papistical books written by William Byrd” that he carried, the partbooks of the first Gradualia. In spite of being the composer of those papistical books, Byrd narrowly avoided imprisonment through the indulgence of Queen Elizabeth, and continued to live free until he died in 1623.

Byrd had retired from the court to live in Essex by the time he published Gradualia, and he worshipped with, played for, and composed sacred music for a gathering of Catholics in the nearby home of Baron John Petre. In the dedication of his second Gradualia to Petre, he wrote that the music had “proceeded from his house, most generous to me and mine.”

Byrd somehow managed to get the necessary approvals for printing the Gradualia from no less a Protestant personage than Richard Bancroft, the Anglican Bishop of London. According to McCarthy, the bishop who approved the printing apparently did so because he thought the Propers would contribute to dissension among Catholics.

Perhaps partly due to the danger of discovery that he envisioned for singers of his Propers, Byrd kept the individual pieces short. “His elegant little offertories and communions—some of them are barely a minute long—could hardly be further removed from the leisurely Latin motets.”

“When he described his settings of the Mass Proper in his 1605 preface, he called them ‘notes as a garland to adorn certain holy and delightful phrases of the Christian rite.’”

Catholic to the End

In spite of all the associated risks, Byrd increasingly used his talents to serve the Catholic liturgy over the same years when almost the entire English population was abandoning the ancient Faith. Almost certainly, he had his own end in mind. In the will he signed in 1622, the year before he died, Byrd wrote this prayer, “that I may live and die a true and perfect member” of the “holy Catholic Church, without which I believe there is no salvation for me.”

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: