Monday, 7 April 2008

William Byrd

I have been to Lincoln Cathedral today. I think I went for two reasons, firstly tomorrow I am going back to school and will be in the rat race for the coming months, and secondly because I wanted to learn something more about William Byrd. Lincoln Cathedral was beautiful, and well worth the visit but I did not succeed to in satisfying my desire to know more about their elusive treasured musician. There was just one small plaque to honour the organist and choir master of the Cathedral between 1653 - 1672.

William Byrd lived a complicated life with a myriad of confusions and contradictions. Religious life was particularly difficult in these turbulent times. Willam Byrd remained a Catholic throughout his life, although a secret one as he served as a gentlemen of the Chapel Royal under the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I from 1572.

Byrd was popular in the Royal Court and composed music which has been used in Anglican Church worship for four centuries. But, he also harboured a faith which other people found difficult to fathom, heretical almost. Throughout his life we walked a tightrope, staying faithful to his own beliefs while doing his best to please those around him with his public persona. For me his most compelling music are his Masses for three, four and five voices. These were compositions designed to be sung in intimate settings, in private houses, where Catholic Mass could be celebrated away from prying eyes and the threat of persecution. I have only a few experiences of hearing Mass celebrated in a group of less than 5 persons, and each occasion is very special in my memory. New relationships and friendships are forged in these settings, and you never forget the faces of the people you were with, the things you prayed for and the reason there were so few of you. I can hear in this music the echoes of what it might have meant to be hidden away, but revealing to those you trust that most precious part of you, your faith. 

In his later years Byrd published Gradualia, a compendium of Catholic music for the liturgical year. This work, in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, was banned under threat of imprisonment.

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