William Byrd and Thomas Weelkes_ Sing we merrily unto God

FOR extra than simply the plain cause, birthdays are preferable to dying days. Birthdays contextualise; dying days usually do the other, shocking us simply as we’re stunned to listen to {that a} a lot beloved movie star from our youth has solely simply departed this life. “I believed he died years in the past,” we predict guiltily to ourselves.

The composers Thomas Weelkes and William Byrd share the identical dying date of 1623 — a undeniable fact that, primarily based on a basic notion of their musical personalities, is likely to be shocking: the previous too early, the latter too late. And, whereas the early demise of Weelkes could also be understood within the acquainted context of genius laid low by drink, the longevity of Byrd invitations us to look at not solely his profession and oeuvre, but additionally what he has change into in our personal cultural creativeness.

Within the case of Byrd, there’s a good cause for marking 1623 slightly than his delivery date: we can’t be positive precisely what that delivery date is. As Shakespeare students will attest, being nice doesn’t resolve primary ambiguities within the historic report. Whether or not or not it’s 1539, 1540, or 1542, Byrd was born into an ecclesiastical tradition that was quick altering, and spent his early profession negotiating those self same doctrinal vicissitudes as his mentor, Thomas Tallis, did.

Byrd was thus a product of the Reformation; and the problem of reconciling devotion to outdated liturgical varieties and dogmas with new aesthetic and theological sensibilities formed a big a part of his work. Creatively, he was as much as the problem, but additionally temperamentally. He might argue with anybody, be they prelate or pauper, and was often known as effectively for his fierce intransigence in issues of the regulation as he was for virtuoso composition.

What’s intransigence to some is to others resolve. And it’s because the resolute Roman Catholic, offering liturgical music for the recusant communities worshipping secretly through the reign of Elizabeth I, that Byrd is at present mostly idolised. The Latin plenty and plenty of of these motets that are actually incessantly — even routinely — carried out by cathedral choirs {and professional} consorts in beneficiant architectural acoustics have been supposed for the key home devotions of recusant households.


It’s unimaginable to think about what such an event may need felt like, besides that they’d have been very completely different from the efficiency contexts of at present: the singers themselves the principal worshippers, studying from music that supplied solely their very own voice half, in an act of intense, communal creativity. These days, recreating the Elizabethan mind-set by means of movie, historic novels, and florid live performance programme notes, we’re inspired to listen to, within the poignant, piercing suspensions that convey to a climax the Mass for 4 Voices, the cry of an anguished, alienated soul.

However that is solely half the story. For all that we want Byrd’s Latin sacred music to disclose secret messages concerning the persecuted artist, it’s as a lot about meanings which are intrinsically and untranslatably musical, knowable solely by means of the method of efficiency.

Byrd was not merely a product of the Reformation and all of the angst that got here with it, however of the Renaissance, which witnessed such a big recalibration between artist and patron. He was, all through his profession, supported by the monarch — specifically, by Elizabeth, who evidently recognised a genius when she noticed one.

A CENTURY earlier, a talented composer would realise his expertise solely by being in holy orders and looking for preferment within the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The composing was secondary to a portfolio of different duties. Byrd was largely liberated from such encumbrances, owing to the indulgent patronage of assorted aristocrats, taking their lead from the monarch. (Regardless of lengthy absences from London, Byrd remained on the salaried employees of the Chapel Royal till his dying.)

AlamyMemorial plaque in Chichester Cathedral to Thomas Weelkes, organist on the cathedral from 1602 till his dying on 30 November 1623

Nor wouldn’t it be truthful to treat this patronage community as being solely Roman Catholic. Those that supported him by shopping for his motet collections — in whose texts supposedly lurk the subversive rhetoric of Jesuit conspirators — have been doctrinally various. As on the Continent, we can’t assume a hard and fast affiliation between musical style and confessional desire. If the music was high-quality, that was sufficient.

An essential side of that high quality — one which, once more, marks Byrd out as a quintessentially Renaissance determine — is his means as a musical orator. Within the preface to his assortment of liturgical music, the Gradualia of 1605, Byrd writes: “In sacred sentences . . . there may be such hidden and hid energy that to a person eager about divine issues . . . probably the most applicable measures come.”

Byrd’s mastery of text-setting is revealed at each the structural and native stage. He segments his texts — a few of them of appreciable size — into paragraphs and sentences, every characterised by a special melodic theme and deployment of voices.

However what is exclusive to Byrd is the style by which he’ll repeat — to the purpose of obsession — a specific text-musical phrase. As Kerry McCarthy (whose guide on the composer is important studying) factors out, the method mirrors that of prayerful contemplation espoused by the Jesuits. In that well-known Agnus Dei from the Mass for 4 Voices, the phrases “dona nobis pacem” tackle a mantric character.

Nonetheless, Byrd can not often be caught indulging in that type of word-setting typical of the madrigal style, by which a nymph ascends a hill accompanied by a rising melody. Byrd illuminates the textual content from inside slightly than paint colors from with out.

UNTIL the twentieth century, it was Byrd’s English anthems (and people Latin works tailored to hold English texts), alongside the service music, that endured within the English church-music repertoire. And it’s these works that characterize probably the most important counterpoint to the undoubtedly engaging theme of Byrd as alienated genius.

In works reminiscent of “Sing joyfully”, and “O Lord, let thy servant Elizabeth”, the madrigal and sacred tune discover excellent steadiness; and, within the Nice Service, he offers for the emergent Anglican choral custom an instance of the music that Richard Hooker celebrated in his Legal guidelines of Ecclesiastical Polity (1597): “A factor which . . . carrieth because it have been into ecstasies, filling the thoughts with heavenly pleasure, and for the time . . . severing it from the physique.”

Byrd is likely to be credited additionally as a pioneer of the musical type that, within the first half of the seventeenth century, was to dominate formidable church art-music. “Train me, O Lord” is a modest instance of the verse anthem and is among the many earliest examples; and but, by the point of Byrd’s dying, the style — characterised by solo sections interspersed with refrain, all to an impartial, instrumental accompaniment — was the soundtrack of exuberant Laudian worship.

Among the many many Jacobean exponents was Thomas Weelkes, of Winchester after which Chichester Cathedrals; and to the associated Verse Service style Weelkes contributed no fewer than six settings.

I hope that this 12 months’s anniversary will assist to shine new gentle on these comparatively uncared for works; however it’s for his madrigals and unaccompanied anthems that Weelkes is greatest remembered. The rhetoric right here is of a special form, the gestures rooted within the particularities of the textual content. Weelkes’s “When David heard”, which units David’s nice cry of grief — “O Absalom, my son, would God I had died for thee!” — is a chunk of music theatre, albeit one designed for choir slightly than consort.

There’s an ostentatious drama in Weelkes’s choral anthems — take, as an illustration, the opening fanfare of “Hosanna to the Son of David” — which suggests a special sort of choral drive from that anticipated by Byrd, in addition to a special liturgical setting, by which efficiency entails a distinction between musicians and “viewers”.

AlamyPlaque in St Peter and St Paul’s, Stondon Massey, in Essex, commemorating the lifetime of William Byrd

It’s also tempting to understand on this some reflection of the composer’s character: the “infamous swearer and blasphemer” of whom the story is instructed — fairly presumably apocryphal — that, at Chichester, he urinated on the Dean’s head because the latter processed into evensong. Had he conquered the bottle, he may need proved as prolific as Thomas Tomkins and as good as Orlando Gibbons.

Though they’ve a standard dying date, Byrd and Weelkes have been from completely different musical and cultural epochs. Coursing by means of the polyphony of Byrd’s Gradualia is the melismatic extravagance of the pre-Reformation interval; of Tallis and Taverner. Whereas it’s doable to overplay for dramatic impact the picture of Byrd as a lonely insurgent, the circumstances by which his music was conceived and carried out weren’t merely influences, however have been profound and infrastructural.

By the point Weelkes was lurching by means of his profession, a brand new, assured Anglican tradition was evolving, and a composer of Weelkes’s calibre might be assured not simply of home chamber performances, however of validation in probably the most spacious ecclesiastical buildings.

Publishers are likely to herd all music from earlier than the Civil Battle into the “Tudor Church Music” camp — a branding that, for many who have been round in 1623 to mourn these two nice musicians, would have been puzzling.