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ClassicsOnline Home » BYRD / TALLIS: Masses
William Byrd (1543 - 1623)
Masses for Four and Five Voices
Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 - 1585)
Mass for Four Voices
The early 1580s marked an important change in the sacred music of William Byrd, just as they did in the history of Catholicism in England; as Jesuits and "retrained" English priests began arriving from the continent to rejuvenate Catholic communities which had languished through laziness and spasmodic persecution, public executions such as that of Father Edmund Campion and two other Jesuits in 1581 provided brutal evidence that Queen Elizabeth I felt uncomfortable in her position as the Protestant ruler of a largely reactionary populace and threatened both by the fanaticism of plotters and the might of Spain.
William Byrd owed his position at the Chapel Royal and his monopoly with Tallis of music publishing to the Queen, and was one of many courtiers made to feel acutely a sense of divided loyalty. He and his family were charged with non-attendance at church on numerous occasions and from the mid-1580s Byrd appeared less in London and more in the households of Catholic patrons such as that of the Petre's at Ingalstone Hall in Essex.
Byrd's first response to this alienation from official life was an intensely emotional one. Many of the Latin motets of the 1580s, collected in two volumes of Cantiones Sacrae, set words about the Babylonian Exile, charged with penitential ecstasy.
By contrast, the Mass settings are compact and controlled. They belong to a later period, when Byrd's response to his circumstances had changed from the impassioned to the practical; the Gradualia represent an attempt to set music for the entire Catholic liturgy, and the Masses may have been linked to the same project. Little can be said about the quality and effectiveness of these Masses which is not said by the fact that they are now absolutely at the heart of the English choral repertory. Ironic, one might think, for music which was conceived in answer to the plea, "How may we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
The breadth and diversity of Thomas Tallis's sacred music is one of its most appealing characteristics, and one of the reasons why his music has been a constant in choral anthologies from his day to ours. In adapting to the constraints of four different Tudor regimes Tallis produced works so different in function, vision, and musical language as to provoke the accusation of Vicar of Brayism. The criticism is understandable when one directly compares, for instance, the magnificent Gaude gloriosa, written during the Catholic revival of Mary's reign, with the unassuming If ye love me, from the Protestant era of Edward VI, but one must bear in mind that obedience to a Tudor monarch was a religious dogma in itself, while fidelity and servility were not so closely associated as they are in democratic minds.
The Mass for Four Voices dates either from late in Henry VIII's or Mary's reigns. The syllabic style of word setting suggests a more functional, less decorative role in the liturgy. It has been suggested, though it must always remain speculative, that the Mass was written at a time late in Henry's reign, when Cranmer was known to prefer simple settings of the Latin rite. If so, the Mass only partly conforms since Tallis still allows himself the odd melismatic flourish.
The Oxford Camerata was formed in order to meet the growing demand for choral groups specializing in music from the Renaissance era. It has since expand its repertoire to include music from the medieval period to the present day using instrumentalists where necessary. The Camerata currently tours regularly within Europe and has made a variety of recordings for Naxos spanning the music of nine centuries.
Jeremy Summerly was a choral scholar at New College, Oxford, from where he graduated with First Class Honours in Music in 1982. For the next seven years he worked for BBC Radio and it was during this time that he founded the Oxford Camerata and undertook postgraduate research at King's College, London. In 1989 he became a lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music and in the following year he was appointed conductor of Schola Cantorum of Oxford. In 1991 he signed a long-term contract with Naxos to record a variety of music with Schola Cantorum and the Oxford Camerata.
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BYRD / TALLIS: Masses