Byrd is the wyrd

William Byrd Festival concert finale shows enduring value of Renaissance music in live performance

By BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

At a recent social gathering, I overheard a person asking, in reference to Portland’s upcoming William Byrd Festival, “who wants to hear that old stuff, anyway?” To which I replied, eruditely, “it’s part of our musical heritage.” To which she responded “Fine, preserve it, but we don’t need to hear it.”

Time to refresh my drink.

Fact is, Byrd groupies–performers and listeners alike–flock year after year (21 years, to be precise) to Portland’s Byrd Festival, which concluded August 25. The annual two week summer celebration of England’s greatest Renaissance composer is an artistic happening and an Oregon treasure. 

How has this continued, year after year, getting better and better? What’s the draw of William Byrd, an Elizabethan composer, 1543-1624? He’s been dead for 395 years, yet his music is still alive. So what’s the deal?

Cantores in Ecclesia performing at the 2014 William Byrd Festival.

First, live a long time

We exist in a period of time where fame is clocked from the onset of “trending” to the ”whatever happened to” column in #NOw*! WEaKLY#. We forget what it took – what it takes – for a composer like William Byrd to span the centuries and attract thousands of fans to a festival of his music. 

Byrd was a great talent and a hard worker. He also had an ideal combination of factors beneficial in achieving true and lasting fame.

First: live a long time. Yeah, there are the prolific exceptions (Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn) who died young, but it doesn’t hurt to have 40 or 50 years to hone the craft. How wonderful for us (and for them) if Distler, Gershwin, Arriaga, and Purcell had had more years to produce beautiful music.

Second: crossing musical genres as composer and artist–being truly gifted in sacred and secular music, instrumental and choral music–helps achieve the greatest exposure. 

It has also helped many a composer to have a patron–either a royal house or the Church–and/or a supporting post. 

Composer William Byrd.

William Byrd checked all of these boxes. He did, in fact, live a long life (c. 1540-1623). He indulged in all the genres available to him at the time–motets, masses, madrigals, and keyboard pieces–and was well recognized in each. He had a patron in Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, one of his biggest fans despite his Catholicism. 

Byrd, along with Thomas Tallis, had the added advantage of being granted, in 1575, a proprietary license by Elizabeth I for the import and publication of polyphonic musical works–including their own. Hitherto, music had been sent to Henry VIII for approval and distribution of rights. What a coup!

And luck? Sure, never hurts. Coming of professional age at the advent of mass printing. Thomas Tallis as your mentor and professional partner. Kismet.

Byrd, a Catholic, personally and professionally survived the Protestant Elizabethan period of religious chaos, perhaps garnering tolerance through loyalty–although he and his family were called to task numerous times for Catholic assembly and affiliation.

Festival as patron

And so, here in Portland, the annual William Byrd Festival is a modern day patron of Byrd and his music. It started over two decades ago as the vision of current executive director Dean Applegate and the late Richard Marlow. The festival’s continuing success is due to their persistence in continuing to attract and maintain talent, sponsors and audiences. Scholar-musicians, including William Mahrt, Kerry McCarthy, David Trendell and Ross Duffin have appeared. Conductor Blake Applegate has used his considerable talents to elevate the artistry of the choral forces.

Current Byrd Festival Music Director Mark Williams – organist, Director of Music and Tutorial Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford – skillfully plans and conducts, and also provides the beloved bubbly Byrd bits on the keyboard. The music is always performed with the goal of historical accuracy, and great effort is made through lectures and modeling to educate the audience about Byrd’s music, life, and times.

Mark Williams directs Cantores in Ecclesia at the 2017 William Byrd Festival.

In the August 25 Festival finale at Southeast Portland’s St. Philip Neri Church concert, Portland’s Cantores in Ecclesia–since 2010 conducted year ’round and prepared for the Festival by Blake Applegate–sang with finesse and ebullience under Mr. Williams, with near-perfect intonation in each of the motets from Byrd’s Cantiones Sacrae (Sacred Songs 1589-1591). Because of the polyphonic settings, the delineation of moving parts must be clear, and indeed it was–crystal–in all but one piece. The dovetailing of phrases was audible and dynamic contrast always prevalent.

These Cantiones Sacrae represent not only staunch Catholic doctrine but also commentary on the social/political climate. Musically, they are exquisite examples two of Byrd’s techniques: purposeful use of specific intervals (i.e., minor second and minor sixth) to indicate pathos, and word painting to depict mood (hopeful, sad, plaintive ) or direction (to heaven or to hell). 

A choir that listens

On this closing night, the program order was brilliantly nuanced. As Festival resident lecturer (and singer) William Mahrt pointed out, the pieces–while serious and pious–ran the emotions from ecstatic to sorrowful, hopeful to doubting. Mr. Williams delicately crafted two segues, with the ending tones of one work barely decaying in St. Phil before the opening tones of the next work. It enabled a vital drive: one less full stop, making the journey more enjoyable. This was particularly helpful when the final words of the “Quis est homo” (“Who is the man”) speak of wiping the memory of those who do evil from the earth (ye’gads) and the next words are “Cantate Domino” (“Sing a new song”).

Whew!

Among many standouts were “Haec Dies” (“This is the day”), with its intricate rhythmic changes and celebrative mood and tempo; “Descendit de caelis” (“He descended from heaven”), which sometimes abruptly changed harmonies at appropriate junctures, and was sung with divinely-inspired intonation; and the subdued excitement of “In resurrection tua” (“At your resurrection, Lord”). The added attraction of the organ pieces made Byrd’s genius even clearer, with sparkling flourishes under the expert guidance of Mr. Williams’ fingers. 

Mark Williams performing Byrd’s keyboard music.

In the sorrowful “Cunctis diebus” (“All the days that I now serve”), intertwining lines flickered and wavered like candlelight, mysterious yet comforting. No soloists were featured in this night’s offerings, but it was a pleasure–by virtue of reduced choral forces–to hear the male voices featured in the “Afflicti pro peccatis” (“Afflicted for our sins”). 

The concert finale, “Domine quis habitabit” (“Lord, who shall dwell in your tabernacle”), featured many of Byrd’s signature musical gestures: cross-relations (no, not angry aunts, but the jangle of two side-by-side notes just a half-step apart) and close imitation of sumptuous vocal lines. It is also a maverick composition, in that it contains nine separate vocal lines, making a thick and dark mix in the already thick St. Philip Neri acoustics.

This is a choir that listens, and they did their best to delineate the lines and make use of the great tonal decay in these acoustics. Mr. Williams seems to have forged his own choral sound with Cantores, approaching the best features of an English Choir sound with careful phrasing, intonation, and clear tone quality. 

These works and his Anglican church compositions, secular works, and keyboard masterpieces are the Byrd legacy. They provided solace, joy and inspiration to 300 more years of devout church goers — and then were tossed quarter note over semiquaver into the artistic maelstrom that is “church music” over the past 50 years.

Mark Williams conducted Cantores in Ecclesia in the final concert of the 2017 William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Populism schmopulism – Byrd is the word

Populism in sacred musical contexts didn’t start with Vatican II–and it won’t end if Latin texts are suddenly welcomed back wholesale into the Catholic Church. And it isn’t solely a manifestation of Evangelical worship services; mainline sects (Presbyterian, Methodist, etc.) have also inclined toward the populist praise band phenomenon. 

The reality is that you won’t hear much William Byrd on generic choral concert stages (even in universities), and there are relatively few churches that maintain choirs that include early music in their services. Specialty choirs have taken this on – choirs such as Byrd Ensemble, Tallis Scholars, Cappella Romana. 

In our awareness of how exclusionary the arts world has been over time, we are making strides. We should pursue and nurture inclusion of the highest quality of all art from all eras and origins; we should not completely exclude genius of the past to champion modern mediocrity. 

Cantores in Ecclesia at the 2012 William Byrd Festival.

Days after that social gathering where I encountered the skeptic who thought we no longer needed to hear Byrd’s music in live performance, a graceful and thoughtful response finally came to mind. So, here it is.

“We have museums for our visual arts and antiquities. We have heritage site designations for our architecture. We have libraries for our literary arts. For the lively arts, we have concerts. We ARE the posterity for which art is preserved. We the church, we the conductors, we the musicians, we the educators, we the audience.” This is why I am such fun at parties. 

Okay, people. Let’s get on the net and get this artist millions of hits. This is how it happens, right? That’s Byrd with a “y.” Biggest hit? Uh, maybe “Haec Dies.” Label? Didn’t record much. Does he tour? No, cause he’s, like, dead–but his stuff is covered by this tribute band Cantores In Ecclesia out of Portland. Next best time you can catch this guy’s music live on stage in Oregon–along with tunes by his bestie Thomas Tallis–is next August in Portland.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer.

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