2016-02-28 Notes from the Bench

“Mass for Four Voices” by William Byrd

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


The composer William Byrd (c.1540-1623) is considered one of the great masters of English Renaissance music. His oeuvre of approximately 470 compositions includes sacred and secular vocal works, keyboard pieces, and music for small, instrumental ensembles or consort music. Byrd made significant contributions to the sacred music repertoire of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions, composing church anthems, motets, masses and service music, and psalm settings. Through his works, Byrd assimilated and transformed the compositional forms and styles of his native England with those of continental Europe in a manner that gives his works their unique identity.

Byrd published “Mass for Four Voices” in London around 1592 for use during the Roman Catholic liturgy. In post-Reformation England, clandestine Masses, often celebrated with considerable pomp, were held in recusant households, despite the risk of being arrested by the authorities for possession of Roman Catholic documents or participating in Catholic liturgies. Byrd wrote this mass setting to conform to the liturgy requirements of the Tridentine Mass that missionary priests from the continent celebrated. He incorporated stylistic elements of Tudor era choral writing, including semi-choir sections, unusual cadence formulae, and drawing material from John Taverner’s (1490-1545) “Mean Mass.”



Byrd was born in London. Documentary evidence of Byrd’s early musical training is scarce; it is probable that he sang as a chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral and for the Chapel Royal under the tutelage of Thomas Tallis. Byrd’s earliest known professional employment was his appointment to Lincoln Cathedral as organist and master of the choristers, a position he held from 1563 until 1572. In 1572, he was granted the prestigious post of Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, serving the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and named organist. Around 1594, Byrd went into semi-retirement from the Chapel Royal when he and his family moved to Stondon Massey, a small village in the county of Essex, where he lived for the remainder of his life.

Byrd’s life was often filled with turmoil, but despite this, enjoyed many productive years. Byrd’s family was likely Anglican, probably as conforming subjects of Henry VIII while the English reformation movement that was taking place. The church authorities at Lincoln Cathedral were influenced by Puritanism and embraced many of their ideals for simple musical textures and intelligible texts, which was often as odds with Byrd’s polyphonic style. Byrd converted to Roman Catholicism sometime during the 1580s. The religious tensions in England present during the late sixteenth century often put Byrd in a position where he was frequently in serious trouble; his membership of the Chapel Royal was briefly suspended and his travels were restricted. Although Elizabeth I granted Byrd a license to practice his faith, he often faced local assizes, censorship, and was required to pay fines and penalties.


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