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Care for thy soul: William Byrd Festival returns

Long-running celebration of English Renaissance polyphony brings three weekends of music and lectures to Oregon churches.

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William Byrd Festival director Mark Williams.
William Byrd Festival director Mark Williams.

The William Byrd Festival is back in town. Well, officially it never left town, of course. It is a genuine Portland-born treasure–and how wonderful to see it return in full form August 5 through 21.

Since its kick-off in the summer of 1998 this celebration of England’s most important Renaissance composer has been a summer favorite. The Festival sponsor and foundation choir, Cantores in Ecclesia, with conductor Blake Applegate, will continue to illuminate the beauty and variety of the Renaissance choral repertoire. Festival director Mark Williams will offer astonishing examples from the organ.

Some things about the Festival have changed over 24 years – venues, artists, conductors, guest scholars. Some things remain the same – venues, artists, conductors, guest scholars. It’s the past in the present, honoring the many sounds of William Byrd.

We will explore some reasons why you might want to attend a Festival event. Let’s begin with the reason given by Portland alto and In Mulieribus artist Susan Hale – what has had her returning to sing in the Festival for about twelve years. “The primary passion for me is Renaissance polyphony.” 

How wonderfully specific. What is polyphony you ask? Excellent question. It’s important in Byrd’s music so let’s try and define it, quite inadequately, in a few words. Polyphony–literally “many sounds”–is a style of music that uses the compositional design element of two or more independent voices (melodic lines) woven together. Harmonic elements – and texture and tension – are created by the interplay of those voices.

You might be thinking that sounds like fugue. Good on you–a fugue is a specific type of polyphony. Byrd, however, dallies with the fugue constraints and the result is more like a dialogue. Ah, like a conversation you say. Good insight. Note the graceful give and take of Byrd’s polyphonic dialogue in the “Kyrie” from Mass in 4 Voices, sung so very beautifully by New York Polyphony. That entire Mass will be featured near the midpoint of the Festival, at 11 a.m. on August 14 at Holy Rosary Church in Northeast Portland.

So much for speed music theory and composition; just know that William Byrd sure knew how to polyphonate. Don’t write in–no, it’s not a word. It’s just for fun, because polyphony is such fun. Come and hear for yourself.

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Festival takes flight

So what other Byrd gems are programmed for the Festival’s premiere on the fifth? None. The first events in the Festival showcase the brilliance of a different English Renaissance composer: Thomas Tallis. It is a fitting placement, as Tallis was born about thirty years before Byrd, was Byrd’s teacher, and later shared organist duties with him at the Chapel Royal. The Byrd Festival Consort, a small vocal ensemble, will perform Tallis’ complete Lamentations of Jeremiah on opening night at St. Philip Neri Church in Southeast Portland.

The first of three Festival lectures, “Remembering Thomas Tallis,” will be presented the following day by Dr. Kerry McCarthy. This Portland scholar has been involved with the Festival since 1998–as singer, program note author, music advisor and lecturer–and she might provide insights on the tumultuous times in which Byrd lived.

In recent correspondence, McCarthy explained: “It’s hard to beat the Tudors for intrigue and scandal, and Byrd lived through a lot of that: espionage, plots, conspiracies, royal weddings, executions, etc. In fact his three Latin masses were clandestinely published without title pages or identifying info, because he composed them for underground Catholic services.”  

Now, for a totally inadequate speed history lesson: Byrd was born around 1540, less than a decade after the religious schism initiated by Henry VIII, and came into his productive composing years after Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558. Byrd and his family remained steadfast to their Catholic faith in Reformation England. He and Tallis (who was also Catholic) also wrote music for Protestant church services, and escaped severe punitive measures only because their music was so favored by Elizabeth I. She even gave them exclusive rights to publish music for 21 years, a major monopoly, and great for their music.

The seal of approval of the Monarch was huge, says McCarthy. “There are still a lot of British products, like marmalade or gin or Earl Grey tea where the packaging says “By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.”

Rebyrdth

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For additional historic perspective or total immersion in a Byrd-ish, Renaissance-ish zone, here are a couple of ideas:

Dive into Kerry McCarthy’s Byrd biography Byrd; or you might prefer her second composer bio, Tallis, published in 2020 (no doubt the inspiration for her Festival lecture). Or watch this McCarthy lecture on the two composers:

Or listen to this 5-part series, first broadcast one year ago on BBC 3 Radio, honoring Byrd’s life and music: To Preserve the Health of Man. Each 15-minute episode is an imagining of Byrd’s thoughts and encounters as he composes his late-in-life Gradualia. Actor David Suchet portrays the composer in these delightful little Festival amuse-bouches–and the music is the real deal.

Or stay home and watch a Renaissance-themed movie. Best pick for historic authenticity is the 1966 A Man for All Seasons, playwright Robert Bolt’s dramatization of the final days of devout Catholic St. Thomas More. Enjoy the Oscar-winning performances and bathe in the Renaissance music of, whoops, 20th century French film composer Georges Delerue. Maybe not so authentic. But, enjoy the film and then come hear real sounds at the Byrd Festival.

Care for thy soul

Of course, you can listen to Byrd’s wonderful music without knowing anything about the man, his life, the time and place in which he lived and his convictions. The music should stand on its own but, my goodness, Byrd survived and his music thrived through some dramatic times. So, British history lovers, there’s your reason to attend the Festival.

Byrd wrote a bit of poetry, too. And perhaps one of those poems, “Care for thy soul as thing of greatest price” hints at another reason to attend and value the Byrd Festival. He says care “for” not care “about.” Not just in thought, but in deed. 

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How do we care for a musical heritage, such an important part of any culture and, especially in choral music, a representation of the language? How do we make sure that the self expression of a people is preserved? We sing it, we study it, we play it and we invite others to hear it and join in. If possible, we allow it to return home. And in the case of the Catholic liturgical works of William Byrd, that means back to the church. This Festival cares for the person and the music, cares for the liturgy, and–for many–cares for the soul.

Is this what Byrd Festival founders Dean Applegate and the late Richard Marlow had in mind over two decades ago? The extensive Festival history states that in the Festival’s first year all three of Byrd’s Masses were celebrated by Cantores in Ecclesia. All three will be sung this season as well. And Dr. William Mahrt, who has planned and presented scholarly lectures since the beginning, returns to present two lectures, the second immediately preceding the final concert “Tallis and Byrd – A Celebration of England’s two finest Renaissance composers,” conducted by Mark Williams, on August 21.

The inviting Festival Schedule  is spread over three weekends. Tickets for the first and the final events, both at St. Philip Neri Church, can be purchased from the link on the schedule; all other events – concerts, services and lectures – are free-will-offering. The Organ Recital by Williams is at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral; all other services and lectures take place at Holy Rosary Church.

How will you “Byrd”? There are so many ways. Love British history? Check. Enjoy stories of courage and conviction? Check. Looking for some musical experiences that fit your budget? Check. Care for the soul? Check. Just craving good polyphony? Aren’t we all?

So go out into the world and polyphonate! Snuck that in again–perhaps it, like William Byrd, could catch on.

Image taken from “Funeral Procession of Queen Elizabeth.” McCarthy suspects the foreground gentleman might be Byrd.

Connections

Literature

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Dr. Kerry McCarthy is enjoying her newest project: a book about singers in the Renaissance era in Britain. “Turns out Tudor singers were a lot like us,” says McCarthy. “In fact I’m really writing this book for my own singing colleagues in some ways.” Sounds like a great read.

Not to diss film music

Georges Delerue was a fabulous film composer. His extensive filmography might surprise you. A few years after A Man for All Seasons, he won an Oscar for Anne of the Thousand Days–a movie of suspect historic accuracy but dramatically much elevated by Delerue’s score. 

All the world’s a stage

Hie thyselfe to one of the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival plays produced in parks throughout the Metro area from now through August. Fun, fairly family appropriate, and budget perfect–which is to say, free as a Byrd. Are you wondering if contemporaries Shakespeare and Byrd knew each other? Were they connected somehow? The August 20 Festival lecture is “Byrd & Shakespeare: Songs and Sonnets” given by Dr. Ross Duffin.

Renaissance fare

I can’t stop thinking about spit-roasted turkey legs. 

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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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