Over the next several weeks, the Christ Church Choirs will be singing all three of William Byrd’s Mass settings:
February 3, 11am | Mass for Four Voices sung by the Schola Cantorum
February 10, 11am | Mass for Three Voices sung by the gentlemen of the Choir of Men & Boys
March 6, 7:30pm | Mass for Five Voices sung by the Christ Church Singers
March 17, 11am | Mass for Five Voices sung by the Christ Church Singers
Byrd was one of the greatest Renaissance composers in Europe, and was born in England about 1540 towards the end of Henry VIII’s reign and lived until July 4, 1623. Therefore he lived through the political and religious upheaval of the English reformation. It had a huge effect on liturgy and music in England, and included the production of the first Book of Common Prayer (1549), which was the first book to include services for daily offices and Holy Communion in English.
Little is known of Byrd’s early life, although it is likely he was a boy chorister in the Chapel Royal. He became Organist at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563, and a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572. Elizabeth I’s reign was a high point for the Chapel Royal, and he was mentored by Thomas Tallis there. While working there, the two composers produced Cantiones Sacrae, two volumes of music to religious texts in Latin, intended to be sung not in a religious context, where it was banned, but at home.
Byrd, however, never left his own Catholicism behind. In retirement from the Chapel Royal he moved to Stondon Massey in Essex, where he lived near his patron Sir John Petre, a recusant Catholic who held clandestine Masses in his private chapel. This provided Byrd with the opportunity for his last substantial project: to compose a cycle of liturgical music of three masses and 109 motets.
The masses were composed first. They include influences from early Tudor settings, including head motifs starting each movement, and substantial sections for small groups. The Mass for Three Voices is the shortest and most understated; it has a quietly joyous nature. Musicologists think the Mass for Four Voices was the first to be written. There is a reflective feel to the music, with its style influenced by pre-reformation Tudor settings. The Mass for Five Voices has rich textures, with its extra voice a low tenor, and striking sections of homophony where the whole choir comes together.