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William Byrd's Beata es virgo Maria

Was Byrd's Latin church music influenced by the reformations?

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william byrd William Byrd's books of Gradualia form two sets of Catholic liturgical composition, written around the beginning of the 17th century and published in 1605 and 1607. The music of these volumes relates directly to the Roman liturgy setting the 'proper' texts of the Mass. The five Propers (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory and Communion) are the texts specifically appropriated to each Sunday of the liturgical year and important occasions in the liturgical cycle such as Christmas, Easter, and Saints' days. Byrd set the special seasonal texts in the Gradualia; the motet Beata es virgo Maria is the Offertorium for votive masses of the Blessed Virgin that might occur during the Easter season (it has an Alleluia appended to it as was usual during Eastertide).

Beata es virgo Maria exemplifies Byrd's religious compositional style at the time but it is clearly not a composition for the reformed Protestant church: it sets a 'Marian' text and sets it in Latin in accordance with the Roman liturgical cycle. The music, on the other hand, does not reveal Byrd as simply upholding the traditions of compositional style from earlier sacred music and this may reflect the influence of the Reformation on his religious music.

Historical context

William Byrd's life spanned all the changes of the English Reformation during thc sixteenth century corresponding to the changes of monarchy. Born in 1543, towards the end of Henry VIII's reign, he had experienced the effects of the dissolution of the monastic foundations - one of the principal preservers of church music - the stringent injunctions of Edward VI's Protestantism, the reinstatement of Catholicism in Mary's reign (1553-1558) and the political establishment of the English reformed church during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). That Byrd remained a Catholic and continued to write music for the Roman liturgy without needing to seek exile abroad, as did many of his Catholic musician contemporaries, is remarkable. That he remained in England is partly explained by his continuing association with various groups of recalcitrants: Catholics (and, incidentally, wealthy patrons) engaged in clandestine celebrations of the Mass. These Masses were carried out at so-called "Mass centres" hidden away on great country estates and forming small and committed Catholic communities existing at some considerable risk.

A possible candidate for patronage of the first book of the Gradualia is Edward Paston (1550-1630) who ran a Mass centre at his country house at Appleton in Norfolk; a perhaps more likely venue for its inception was the Essex manor Ingatestone near Chelmsford, the home of the Petre family. Byrd and his wife moved from London to Stondon Massey, a few miles from Ingatestone in 1593.

Context and style

The context of the Gradualia has a direct bearing on its style, for since the Propers were written for clandestine Mass centres they are very likely to have been sung by relatively small groups of singers in rather more modest environments than the large cathedrals and collegiate churches. The music of Beata es virgo Maria reflects this clearly. The points where all five vocal lines run concurrently are reserved for the musical "high spots" - on the word creatorum for example, the climax of all the first imitative entries; and at the end of the Alleluia. And here is a relatively light texture for polyphonic writing compared with, say, Tallis's great Whitsun motet Loquebantur variis linguis or, at the extreme end of the polyphonic range, Spem in alium.

It is also possible to view the short melismas of Beata es virgo Maria (only fives notes on the second syllable of Maria for example; compare this with Tallis's Gaude Gloriosa where as many as 24 notes can be counted on one syllable at the word "honorificanda") as resulting from necessity. With a small group of singers, probably made up of members of the household of the Mass centre and a few others, possibly with only one voice to each vocal line, long phrases on one syllable would have been breathless if not impossible. But did Byrd also take advantage in the music of the Gradualia of new trends taking place in general in European vocal writing where there was certainly a move away from protracted melismatic writing to more condensed forms and a closer relationship between words and music?

The resulting style of Beata es virgo Maria whatever the reasons and influences behind its style, renders the text with quite reasonable clarity, a clarity that might well have satisfied the demands of reformers. After all, the greater part of the underlay does indeed carry only one note to a syllable.

Clarity of texts and the Protestant reformers

Thomas Cramner's 'English Litany' of 1544 dealt mainly with the question of vernacular texts but his resulting work (at the request of Henry VIII) on English liturgies, prompted the comment, in a letter to the King, that the music for the liturgy "would not be full of notes", but should be set "...as near as maybe, for every syllable a note; so that it may be sung distinctly and devoutly...". This echoes Erasmus's (much earlier) comment (in 1516) that "Modern church music is so constructed that the congregation cannot hear one distinct word" (Erasmus's commentary on the Neu Testament). Byrd's Beata es virgo Maria is written in imitative counterpoint (i.e. different syllables of the text are therefore sung simultaneously). Yet Byrd achieved greater clarity of the words by using different melodic/rhythmic themes for each new phrase of text: i) Beata es virgo Maria; ii) quae omnium...; iii) genuisti qui te fecit, and so on. Since the themes are set more or less with one syllable to a note, each new phrase is relatively short and immediately distinguishable aurally. This technique bears comparison with the later motets of Palestrina whose thematic process also 'blocks' the phrases in a concise way.

Parallels might be drawn between Tallis's English and Byrd's Latin church music. Tallis's compositional career had, of course, begun earlier than Byrd's and he was a master of the older style of melismatic counterpoint built on a cantus firmus, but in adapting to the English liturgies he achieved effective results focusing on the rhythm and accent of English words moving the voice parts in parallel. The 'Dorian' Te Deum serves as a well-known example but possibly Tallis saw the style as limited: If ye love me keep my commandments reflects a need for greater musical interest with free imitative counterpoint flowing through the "...that he may 'bide with you...".

Marking the rhythm and accent of the words by the music was not reserved by Tallis for English texts, however. O nata Lux is perhaps a clearer setting of a Latin text than If ye love... is of an English one. Perhaps the English compositions of Tallis shed some light on the apparently new Latin compositional style in the Gradualia.

Clarity of texts and the Catholic Reformation

Important too is the possible influence of the Catholic Reformation on the compositional style in the Gradualia. The Council of Trent's committee of deputies produced the canon relating to sacred music in September 1562. Like the English and continental Protestant reformers, the committee addressed itself to clarity of text music which, it demanded, should not "give empty pleasure to the ear..." but should be constituted "in such a way that the words may be clearly understood by all...". "Lascivious and impure" influences in the music were banned. This last point concerned the use of secular themes in so-called 'parody' masses and motets such as the popular chanson L'homme armé, with all its innuendo, which had been copiously used by European composers (Dufy, Obrecht, Josquin etc.) as a cantus firmus on which to build mass settings

For Palestrina and his contemporaries close to Rome this precept took immediate effect, so that they were more inclined towards using original themes instead of secular ones and to avoid overly obscuring the texts with long melismas. At the 24th session of the Trent council two newly appointed cardinals pursued a course to ban polyphony altogether in favour of a purely monophonic style, a move clearly corresponding with the musical viewpoint of Calvin and Cranmer. The Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I, intervened in defence of polyphonic music at Mass and polyphony was retained, but the commission demanded an emphasis on the proper accent of the Latin words and on reducing melismas. It should nevertheless be emphasised that this was not the sole precedent for a closer relationship between words and music: Josquin's vocal music provides sufficient evidence of a changing focus before the influence of the Reformations was felt (Josquin died in 1521). In the later masses and motets of Palestrina, there is a move away from music shaped completely around pre-existent themes as they were used in the old style cantus firmus forms.

For William Byrd as much as for Palestrina, the use of shorter motives gave the composer a rather freer form in which to work whilst still maintaining an imitative contrapuntal style and it is this style that is evident in Beata es virgo Maria.

The demands of the Council of Trent as a direct influence on Byrd's religious music is perhaps not an area well covered by contemporary research material but Beata es virgo Maria and the music of the Gradualia in general does suggest that his polyphonic style around 1600 at least coincided with those demands: the melismas are short; the Latin text is clearly accented. Clarity of the text alone brought about in this way would no doubt have satisfied Protestant reformers too, but the Latin text and the context of the music places it firmly within the Roman liturgy. Byrd's imitative contrapuntal writing here illustrates a style within the polyphonic tradition of earlier sacred music and yet a fusion of influences that brought about a freer, more condensed form seems to suggest a balance between the ideals of church reformers and older musical traditions.

Mark Johnson, Master, ASC