December 2023

Byrd’s the Word

Josquin   Praeter rerum serium
Tallis   Videte miraculum
Byrd   Laudibus in sanctis
Byrd   Kyrie from Mass for four voices
Byrd   Vigilate
Byrd   Sanctus and Benedictus from Mass for four voices
Byrd   O quam gloriosum
Byrd   Agnus Dei from Mass for four voices
Bach   Lobet den Herrn
Janequin   Le chant des oyseaux
Passereau   Il est bel et bon

st matthew’s westminster
Thursday 7 december 2023

The magnificent Praeter rerum seriem, by Josquin (1450?-1521) takes the form of a succession of carefully worked motifs around the cantus firmus on which it is based. For much of the piece the polyphony is presented antiphonally between the three upper voices, when the chant is in the soprano, and the three lower voices, when it is in the tenor. The second part of the motet is rather freer than the first, concealing the plainchant in what has become a more consistently six-part texture, breaking into triple-time where the text makes final reference to the mystery of the Trinity, before returning to the duple time of ‘Mater ave’.

Videte miraculum is the Responsory at Candlemas. The chant on which Tallis (1505-1585) bases his polyphony comprises several sections, the full choir alternating with solo cantor. He leaves the solo sections as unadorned chant, implanting the choral sections of chant in a six-voice polyphonic texture. Listen for the opening point of imitation on ‘miraculum’—a dissonance, repeated at regular intervals by each entering voice to hypnotic effect, and for fleeting glimpses of major at ‘ad matrem’.

William Byrd (1539-1623), a pupil of Tallis, was the most prodigiously talented and prolific English composer of his time.  His earliest-known employment was as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral.  In 1572 he took up a position at the Chapel Royal in London.  During the 1580s and 1590s Byrd’s Catholicism became the driving force for his music; he wrote and openly published motets and masses, almost certainly composed for small chapel gatherings.  Daringly, he openly published this music; unsurprisingly, it is deeply expressive.

The athletically ebullient Laudibus in sanctis, a paraphrase in Latin elegiac verse of Psalm 150, comes from his Cantiones Sacrae of 1591. It is full of madrigalianisms, involving rhythmic rhetoric, syncopation, melodic representations of the words, and a wonderful section in triple time as the poet dances before God.

The Mass for Four Voices, dating from 1592 or 1593, is the first and perhaps most personal of his three masses.  It retains some techniques from the distant past, such as blurring the boundaries between the tenor and alto parts, yet there are moments of intensity as well.  A central tenet of Elizabethan catholicism was its historical legitimacy, and Byrd makes an explicit homage in referencing, especially in the Sanctus, the pre-Reformation composer John Taverner’s ‘Mean’ Mass.  A plaintive Kyrie and a delicate Sanctus and Benedictus look towards an exquisite Agnus Dei.

Vigilate is notable for its madrigalian characteristics, such as sudden changes in declamatory style, the highlighting of individual words and short phrases, and overt illustrations of textual ideas in the music. The text, from Mark 13: 35–37, is presented from the perspective of Christ, warning his disciples of their inevitable deaths, which could come suddenly and without warning. This message might be read as a warning to English Catholics about the potential mortal danger from civil authorities, or as a metaphor about God coming suddenly in judgment.

O quam gloriosum and its second part, Benedictio et claritas are motets for the Feast of All Saints.  The first is derived from the Magnificat antiphon ‘O how glorious is the kingdom’, and the second from the service of None, ‘Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be unto our God for ever and ever’.  A choir of saints radiates assurance, gleaming with lucid major triads and an even, suffused light, and shows Byrd working at the height of his inspiration.

Lobet den Herrn, by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) is usually considered a motet but its independent continuo part leads some to believe that it may stem from an otherwise lost cantata. Its attribution to Bach is questionable. The text comes from Psalm 117:1-2. The opening text is a fugue starting with the sopranos and cascading its way down to the basses. Billowing roulades on the word ‘preiset ihn’ (praise Him) are followed by supple homophony, giving way to a gracious fugal passage. An infectious, dancing Alleluia concludes the motet.

Le chant des oyseaux is a chanson by Janequin (1485-1558), with birdsong brilliantly portrayed in fast rhythmic figures.  In its first part, the singers bid sleepy hearts awaken, for the god of love is calling on the first of May, and the birds will amaze you. The following three parts sequentially introduce the royal song thrush and blackbird, the nightingale, and the cuckoo, shifting between brief French descriptors and nonsense syllables and music that emulate each bird’s chirping song. The text contains fleeting references to drinking, adultery, and other unholy behaviour.