BYRD: Masses for Four and Five Voices (Jeremy Summerly/ Murray Khouri/ Oxford Camerata) (Naxos: 8.550574)
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William Byrd (1543 - 1623)
Mass for Four Voices
Mass for Five 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. These are non-liturgical works - indeed the text of Infelix ego draws on the Bible only indirectly through the pen of savonarola. The words, written as that Catholic puritan demagogue awaited execution in Florence, reflect on his own personal guilt and the redemptive pity of God. They stimulate Byrd's wide technical resources, from two- and three-part writing to complex six-part polyphony to dramatic homophony, the whole reminiscent of the vast Marian antiphons of Christopher Tye or William Mundy.
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?"
Jeremy Summerly was a choral scholar at New College, Oxford from where he graduated in 1982. For the next seven years he worked as Studio Manager with BBC Radio. It was during this time that he became Director of the Edington Festival Consort and founded the Oxford Camerata. I n 1989 he left the BBC in order to join the Royal Academy of Music as a lecturer in the department of Academic Studies. In 1990 he was appointed conductor of Schola Cantorum of Oxford, one of the finest medium-sized choral groups in the UK. He is now in considerable demand as a conductor, and recently signed a long-term contract with Naxos to record 16th- and 17th-century music with the Oxford Camerata and Schola Cantorum of Oxford.
Oxford Camerata Alison Coldstream
The Oxford Camerata was formed by Jeremy Summerly to meet the growing demand for choral groups specialising in music from the Renaissance era. It has been assembled from some of the finest young singers in Britain, and is flexible in size to meet the varying demands of such early choral works. The Camerata will record a number of discs for Naxos containing music by Palestrina, Tams, Victoria, Lassus and Gesualdo.
Julian Smallbones "