blake applegate

Byrd is the wyrd

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


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”).


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.

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

Cantores in Ecclesia review: Polar opposites

Choir's program of two very different 20th century masses produces different degrees of success


A pigtailed girl skips up the center aisle after getting a pre-concert hug from her parent. She clutches a musical score to her chest and her face is filled with gleeful anticipation of the music to come. She has no idea that the score, the Frank Martin Mass, which covers one-half of her tiny torso, is one of the most revered and defining choral works she could be singing. She sings for the pleasure music brings her life. She is a treble in Cantores in Ecclesia, the Portland choir that performed Monday, February 20, at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

James O’Donnell led Cantores in Ecclesia. Photo: Hyperion Records.

This was a program of polar opposites. The shivering white ice flow of Igor Stravinsky’s Mass of 1948 was set against the much warmer and highly coloristic woven tapestry of the Mass of 1923 by Frank Martin. In a wonderful coup by Cantores, the guest conductor, James O’Donnell, was on the podium – all the way from Westminster Abbey, London. O’Donnell is an icon at the Abbey, organist and choirmaster — in Hollywood-speak, choirmaster to the royals and ruling class. He demonstrated his grace and skill in this concert.

Martin and Stravinsky enjoyed similar life spans of over 80 years, and lived contemporaneously — Martin (a Swiss Huguenot by birth) mostly in the Netherlands, and Russian-born Stravinsky, a lifelong expat, in Russia, France, Switzerland, and America. But what different paths they took. Stravinsky: commercial, secular by comparison, and more famous by the time of the Mass, having already composed The Firebird and Symphony of Psalms, for example. Martin was the son of a pastor, insular, unconfident in his craftsmanship, but in his way, just as inventive and vibrant as Stravinsky. For example, another of Martin’s choral pieces, the Songs of Ariel, commissioned in 1953 for the Netherlands Chamber Choir, is a wonder of Shakespearean exposition: onomatopoeic articulations, harmonic shifts, and jolting musical ideas for his time.


William Byrd Festival: Fervid finale

Cantores in Ecclesia's closing concert creates a cohesive combination of words and music


“Which is more important? Words or music?”

Having recently seen Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio, in which the central theme is this very question, I have been pondering this point. As a choral conductor, my art is dealing with words and music. And so, unlike the inconclusive conclusion to that question in the Strauss opera, I have the definitive answer – at least for today.

William Byrd.

Words convey thoughts and ideas, to elicit response, to provoke emotional reaction. Choral music set to text, unless the text is your Toyota owner’s manual, is often set in a manner that complements or enhances the understanding of words.

Mark Williams led Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Mark Williams also led Cantores in Ecclesia at last year’s William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

All theorizing on the above points is for naught, however, unless the performance itself is revelatory. Correct notes, careful tuning and the exacting entrances and releases are essential as part of an ideal artistic experience. This is what Cantores in Ecclesia provided in the final concert of Portland’s annual William Byrd Festival last Sunday. The settings of biblical texts they sang show how enmeshed Byrd and his English Renaissance colleagues were in the words, from the overall arching form and long phrases down to the smallest detail. Several structural factors, stylistic norms, contributed to the emotional expression.

The pews at northeast Portland’s beautiful St. Patrick’s Cathedral were filled with the loyal festival goers who braved the 102 degree heat in the window-cooled sanctuary. Had Festival Artistic Director Mark Williams known, he might have programmed Thomas Morley’s “Fire, Fire” just for comedy relief. We were treated instead to the glorious choral and organ works of Byrd and his English contemporaries and successors. The construction of the program was very intelligent, especially, in hindsight, given the draining effect of the temperature, with excellent balance offering wonderful range of emotional involvement.


William Byrd Festival review: They’ve done it all, but they’re not done yet

Summer Renaissance music institution reaches a milestone.


“We are all done,” announced Dr. William Mahrt from the stage at Portland’s St. Stephen’s church before the closing concert of this summer’s William Byrd Festival. The Stanford University scholar didn’t mean that the Festival’s 17 year run was concluding. But this year’s edition was a culmination, because with the end of this concert, the festival’s singers had, in fact, delivered themselves of the entire canon of the great English Renaissance composer’s sacred masses and motets. Yet as we’ll see, there will be more to come.

Mark Williams led Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Mark Williams led Cantores in Ecclesia at the William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

Our community is blessed to have such extravagant events occurring in our midst each summer. This event – some two weeks long – typically brings together highly respected conductors, musicologists and singers from near and far: Mark Williams, Director of Music and Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge; Kerry McCarthy, well-reputed early music scholar, known for her biography on Byrd, from right here in Portland; Jeremy Summerly, British conductor and musicologist, Director of Oxford Camerata and Royal Academy Consort; and Dr. Mahrt, highly respected scholar of Gregorian chant and sacred music of the Renaissance.

The talented singers are always well trained, and Sunday night’s closing choral concert was no exception. Festival Director Blake Applegate (who also directs and prepares the Portland jewel Cantores in Ecclesia, which serves as the festival’s choir) sang tenor, at times, low alto; Virginia Hancock, Kellogg Thorsell and Maggie Morris have sung with the Festival each year since its founding. Many other professional singers contribute greatly to the wealth of vocal talent.

The longest ovation of the evening was reserved for conductor and Artistic Director Williams, who also provided two virtuosic organ solos, and the two Applegates, father and son, Blake and Dean, the latter of whom founded the Festival in 1998. It’s clear that there is a large following for these events.