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Assured friend to all that love or learn music: William Byrd Festival returns

Long-running festival celebrates four centuries of Byrd with concerts, recitals, lectures, and more.


Portrait of William Byrd. Gerard van der Gucht (after Nicola Francesco Haym). From the collection of the British Museum.
Portrait of William Byrd. Gerard van der Gucht (after Nicola Francesco Haym). From the collection of the British Museum.

It’s time to celebrate composer William Byrd. We know this to be true because on July 4–the 400th anniversary of his death–the New York Times published two headliner articles on the Renaissance composer. We know something special is forthcoming if an artist is featured on the long-running BBC’s Composer of the Week; William Byrd got the full five episodes. And we’re soon to be alerted when the singers of Cantores in Ecclesia perform on All Classical Thursdays at 3 on August 3. All signs point to Byrd.

Of course lots of you know it’s time to celebrate William Byrd just because it is August–the month in which, for twenty-four seasons, the William Byrd Festival has taken flight. Festival Director Blake Applegate, Festival Artistic Director Mark Williams, Kerry McCarthy, Ross Duffin, William Mahrt, Cantores in Ecclesia–oh my giddy aunt, it’s the whole crew back again. But lest you deem it to be all more of the same, this year’s Festival creators have fashioned a few new ideas for your pleasure. 

Beginning August 4, Cantores in Ecclesia–and, by extension, our Portland music community–lay claim to all things Byrd. Not as a right of ownership, but as a responsibility to share it, joyfully and generously. The William Byrd Festival is a sonic exhibit of masterworks. An organ recital (1), concerts (3), lectures (4), workshops (1) and services (4) are spread out over 16 days. And this year – the quadricentennial year – it’s nothing but Byrd.

But really, all this fuss–is the music of Byrd really that special? Is this Festival merely an esoteric construct with no possibility of contemporary appeal? So maybe he was a great composer whose enormous body of work influenced succeeding generations of composers. Isn’t it all just church music? Is this music really as beautiful and transformative and–to quote contemporary composer Nico Muhly (from a recent NYT article on Byrd)–a “delicious form of engagement with the ear”? The answers to the above are (special) YES; (esoteric) NO, but you can pretend it is; (just church music) NO; and (beautiful and transformative) GO HEAR SOME BYRD and submit your answer later. 

Brett Campbell, Oregon Arts Watch Editor and Contributor related his first Byrd encounter in recent email. “When I moved from the home of the Bach fest (Eugene) to the home of Byrd fest I wondered, why Byrd? Then I heard the music at the festival and wondered, why not MORE Byrd? Every time I hear it, I’m amazed again just how much beauty there is.” 

We do tend to neglect the pre-Baroque choral repertoire. In our higher ed institutions it is examined in lit, composition and music education courses but not as often programmed on concerts. But you’ve probably heard The Tallis Scholars lay down some Byrd on their yearly PDX tour stop. And our good friends in Chanticleer often honor Byrd on their programs right alongside the contemporary works they champion. 

Byrd’s music isn’t all liturgical. This year the Festival does a nice job of making sure you know that when their “And Byrds do sing: Byrd’s music at Home” recital offers songs to be sung around your home virginal (or other keyboard). Secret insider info on this recital indicates that there might be places where the “audience sings.” Well, hello; there’s something new (rubbing hands in gleeful anticipation.)


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If you sang in high school you might have performed Byrd’s Sweet and Merry Month of May, which will be included in the abovementioned recital, or Haec Dies–the short, accessible work often used to teach young musicians about alternating voice parts (antiphon), a kind of a two-choir feel within a single choir. “HooahCappella,” choir of the United States Army Band, gives a fine performance of the work. Yes, you read that correctly; what a great name. Listen to their Haec Dies here:

“Assured friend to all that love or learn music”

Byrd lived a long life – to age 80. He mastered the art of polyphony taught to him by his teacher and business partner Thomas Tallis and then took those styles to new heights. Just his development of the canon with its varied voicings and traits – double, inverted, retrograde, retrograde-inverse – has prompted extensive research. 

Listening to Byrd’s keyboard works provides tremendous insight into the complexity of his genius with the canon. Another genius, the eccentric and controversial pianist, Glenn Gould, was a big Byrd fan! (He reportedly liked Orlando Gibbons more, but we can let that slide). Gould is perhaps best known for introducing a generation of listeners to the keyboard music of Bach, hitting his stride in television appearances, sometimes with Bernstein. But he made one recording of the music of Byrd and Gibbons in 1971 (“A consort of Musicke bye William Byrde and Orlando Gibbons”, CBS Masterworks 38522) and in his interpretations beautifully elevates each voice of the canon. Of course, it isn’t HIP. But it is mesmerizingly good Byrd. Listen here to a segment of Byrd’s Sixth Pavan and Galliard performed by Gould:

But HIP will be open for discussion as the Festival offers a new workshop format this year presented by a new face in the line-up of participants. Byrd choral scholar and baritone Will Dawes will lead a choral workshop “Interpreting Byrd” (August 9) addressing historic accuracy. Blake Applegate, who this year officially succeeds his father and Festival Co-Founder Dean Applegate as Festival Director, described the new concept in recent telephone conversation with Oregon Arts Watch. “This is kind of a demonstration choir, eight or nine voices. It’s about making decisions about dynamics and style that are appropriate to Byrd while allowing wonderful opportunities of being creative.”

Artistic Director Mark Williams then puts it all together in an organ recital at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on August 13, immediately preceding a special Evensong with Cantores in Ecclesia. This is Williams’ twenty-third season with the Festival, and his consummate excellence at the keyboard is essential in completing the portrait of Byrd. He is the embodiment of what Byrd called himself: ”assured friend to all that love or learn music.” (Quoted from Festival program notes by Kerry McCarthy).

Byrd Scholar Kerry McCarthy is on hand for the opening concert on Friday August 4. She will illustrate (provide clarifying insights) as Cantores in Ecclesia sings a brilliant Byrd-o-rama of fifteen short works averaging about 3 minutes each moving through the Christian calendar year: Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Assumption and All Saints. Enjoy McCarthy’s accessible scholarship as you journey through this Renaissance collection. Like taking in London’s National Gallery with the self-guided audio tour. Join the whole gang for a reception following this opening event.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

The lecture team of Stanford Professor William Mahrt and Case Western Professor Ross Duffin, who will participate in a second illustrated concert, welcomes Byrd Scholar and author of a book on Renaissance recreational music Katie Bank. Bank will present “Byrd’s Visual World” on August 12. 

McCarthy told Oregon Arts Watch that in the closing concert on August 20, you might enjoy another tool in Byrd’s vast toolbox: word painting. Although it isn’t something Byrd used extensively, McCarthy referred to the “Laudibus in sanctis” (Psalm 150) as “a sort of young Elizabethan’s guide to the orchestra.” In just over a minute in one segment of the work you can hear the trumpets (tuba), the lyre, the percussive timbrel and the ethereally resonant organ praising God.

All the better when it is performed by Voces8:

McCarthy recently helped Byrd’s home country celebrate the master as a guest scholar in a five-part series on the BBC program “Composer of the Week” hosted by Donald Macleod. Byrd’s music, life, faith and resilience are described with wit and respect. The five programs are still available for a short time (the first drops off on August 1, and so on) at this link.

Contemporary impact

Byrd has influenced many contemporary composers. Nico Muhly spoke of that influence in the earlier mentioned NY Times article. You will have the direct example of that influence when Seattle’s Byrd Ensemble visits Portland this coming October. Muhly’s newly commissioned piece based on Byrd’s Ne irascarin Domine will be on the program, which is facilitated by Portland choir In Medio. This Byrd Festival with its insights and performances will heighten your awareness of Byrd so your ears and heart can be better ready to experience that October event. As Muhly said in that interview, “There’s always a Byrd for something.” 

Even for a middle school band. Now before you pull a face, just imagine thirty-some 8th graders not only getting to learn about the music of William Byrd but to play it. Consider – and appreciate – the teacher who puts this music in front of them and probably frames a lesson about Renaissance music to boot. A clarinetist gets to play Byrd.


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Who would arrange the music of Byrd, and other Renaissance composers, for winds and percussion? Mark Williams. Not a joke. Also not that Mark Williams. This very prolific arranger was Mark L. Williams. Here’s the Carl Traeger Middle School 8th Grade Band, Oshkosh Wisconsin, performing the Earl of Oxford’s March under the direction of Ms. Karen Kriege. Bravo tutti.

Blake Applegate was a little younger than these students (he thinks around 12) when he was first touched by the music of Byrd. “I remember just being there, sitting outside of the choir room and my dad was teaching the music. I was struck by its beauty. I remember specific parts – like the tonal shifts, suspensions – I recognized the intensity of the music. How blessed I am to continue to expose people to it.”

However you are first exposed to Byrd – singer, organist, clarinetist or first time audience member this year – it is worth it. There is always a Byrd for everyone.

Don’t be intimidated by the whole Festival-ness. All but three concert events are FREE (noted in the schedule as free will offerings). Tickets for the three concert events can be purchased here.

View the entire Festival schedule, August 4 – 20, here. Please pay careful attention to which of the five venues the events are being held. 


Portland Symphonic Choir’s “Summer Sings” continue. Join Portland composer and educator Judy Rose for “An Introspection on Black Women in Choral Music”. Explore with Rose how we can elevate and promote the works and lives of these historically marginalized artists who have contributed greatly to a more diverse and inclusive musical landscape. August 2, 7:00 pm Christ United Methodist Church in Cedar Mill. Reserve your spot here.


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Then on August 16, join Rose, Joshua Sommerville, and Jacob Funk for the next Summer Sing–an evening of new works by historically underrepresented composers. Three scores were chosen from submissions earlier in the year. Experienced singers, those new to their voice, non-music readers, and those who read the notes off the page at first glance–come join your fellow choral music lovers at the Multnomah Arts Center. More information on that here.

The Portland Symphonic Girl Choir invites you to join them for a night of singing and snacks. Come just for fun, come just to let your voice ring.  It’s “One Night of Treble” and it is on August 23, 6-8, at Zion Lutheran Church, Portland. More information at the Girl Choir website.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.


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