Mass for three voices – William Byrd (1543-1623)
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Byrd’s double life, in public a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s Chapel Royal in a newly Protestant England, in private a covert Catholic, directly shaped his music. Byrd could have been sent to the stake for his beliefs and, as a member of the Chapel Royal Choir, he was always likely to attract the attention of the Protestants at Court. Indeed, from 1585 onwards he was continuously cited for recusancy: his house in Harlington was several times searched for incriminating literature. He and his family were yearly expected to pay crippling fines on account of their religion – in 1587 it was £200 – but it seems that Byrd had sufficiently powerful friends at Court for this sum usually to be waived. It is possible that the Queen herself directly protected him.
Grand works such as the Great Service are among the glories of the English choral tradition. In contrast, the long-neglected three Latin masses for three, four, and five voices, with the three-voice setting heard here, were for amateur, chamber performance in hidden Catholic communities. And yet, this music is deeply and powerfully expressive. Byrd’s Mass for three voices will be sung at Mass at St James on Sunday, September 5.