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Katie's ByrdStory

Cross posted from ByrdCentral

Dr Katie Bank is a music historian at the University of Birmingham and the creator of ByrdCentral. Katie has published scholarly books and articles on early modern English music and musical culture, and is a co-editor of Byrd in the Twenty-first Century (forthcoming, Clemson University Press, 2023). She also likes to sing with her friends.

1) Ad dominum cum tribularer

2) Ave verum corpus / O magnum mysterium

3) O You that Hear This Voice

4) In exitu Israel / Miserere nostri

5) Sing Joyfully

6) Tribue Domine

7) Rorate Caeli / Vigilate

Ad dominum cum tribularer

While most of this list isn't necessarily in order of appreciation, this one is first. I adore this piece. Ad dominum is an 8-voice motet which only exists in one manuscript source, held in the British Library (Ms.add 31390). Most of the manuscript is In Nomine by composers such as Christopher Tye and the format is laid out like a table book so that all players/singers could read from the same book (standing round a table orientated towards their part - see image below). The voices knit and purl in such a fashion that it keeps even seasoned readers of renaissance polyphony on their toes. I find the resulting texture utterly immersive.

music manuscript of Byrd's Ad dominum
British Library Ms.add 31390 (📸: my own)

The following video is a read through of the piece from the first Byrd-a-thon at Mary Mags in Oxford in 2017 that was organised by my partner, Will. We performed the complete Latin works of Byrd in a 24-hour period as a fundraiser for the church building. Everyone is sight reading and tired. Yet this piece still gives life and if the resolution was better, you'd see massive grins. There are not many places in the world where one can collect enough excellent and enthusiastic singers to pull off an event such as this. It was repeated again in 2023 and was even rated one of the 60 best arts events in 2023 by The Times.

If you want to hear what it sounds like without the infelicities of unrehearsed sight reading, here you go:

Ave verum corpus and O magnum mysterium

Many of these ByrdStories reveal when various musicians were first introduced to Byrd's music. For me it was in my high school choirs, the Santa Barbara High School A Cappella Choir and Madrigal Singers, led by the stupendous Philip McLendon (the best music educators are rarely forgettable). O Magnum was the first Byrd I ever sang, in a Christmas concert circa 1999. It was also my first experience singing renaissance contratenor-turned-alto parts with notes that are not particularly comfortable for modern voices. I remember laughing with alto pals at my futile attempts to gracefully sing one particularly low note (no surprise, as I am actually a soprano).

After that year, I knew I liked this renaissance music. A friend from choir who did not feel as strongly about the stuff (thanks Meredith!) permanently loaned me a CD by the Voices of Ascension, Mysteries of the Renaissance: Beyond Chant. The next year, I begged Mr McLendon to programme Byrd's Ave Verum. Knowing my youthful persistence, I'm sure he really had no choice but to oblige. The 'miserere mei' refrain somehow resonated with my atheist/agnostic soul. I was hooked.

Don't worry, the rest of this ByrdStory isn't going in chronological order. But please, oh please support music education.

O You that Hear This Voice

My first scholarly publication was on Byrd's 'O You that Hear This Voice' (1588) a intriguing consort song that sets a text from Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella. It describes a trial-like setting contesting the hierarchy of the senses of sight and hearing in their ability to influence our passion and ration. One might interpret this piece as 'unfinished' because of a quirk in Byrd's text setting that requires the musicians to decide how the piece should be played/sung. The result can be different from performance to performance.

This song and its relationship to 'unfinishedness' reminds me of a particularly memorable Music in the Gallery I co-curated with my friend and colleague Charlotte de Mille, Curator of Music at the Courtauld Gallery. Working with Dr De Mille (and our friend Nerissa Taysom, Curator at Glyndebourne) pairing and chatting about art and music in the gallery setting is how I first became involved in my current project on music and visual culture. It also gave me an excuse to flex my quickly atrophying conducting muscles.

I always relish the opportunity to discuss Byrd's English song with public audiences. Compared to the attention receieved by his Latin music, Byrd's vernacular vocal music for recreational, domestic use is woefully underrepresented in both performance and scholarship. Luckily, very recent recordings have done much to redress the balance (thanks to The Sixteen and Alamire)!

In exitu Israel (Byrd/Sheppard/W. Mundy) / Miserere nostri (Tallis)

These two pieces show 'Mr Byrde' amongst this peers.

In exitu is a fascinating piece and a subject of much musicological hubbub. I included In exitu in my list because it puts Byrd in context alongside two colleagues, John Sheppard and William Mundy, who each set a verse of this music. There's a fantastic chapter by Professor Magnus Williamson in our forthcoming Byrd volume on this piece (the second part of Similes illis fiant), so no spoilers. But Sheppard is my favourite composer to sing, and seeing a young Byrd's music in this kind of context is really intriguing. Plus the excitement of seeing your favourite artists in collaboration rarely gets old.

It is possible one also sees Byrd's in collaboration with his mentor, Thomas Tallis in Miserere nostri from Cantiones Sacrae 1575 (CS1575). Not only did Byrd and Tallis co-create this printed collection of Latin music, but some scholars, including John Milsom, have proposed the two composers wrote this particular canon-based work together. Normally attributed to Tallis, the print shows six of the seven voice parts with Tallis's name as composer. But one part, the Discantus, says that part is by Byrd.

Notation for Superius from Miserere nostri by Tallis
Superius from Miserere nostri (CS1575)

Notation for Discantus from Miserere nostri by Tallis and Byrd?
Discantus from Miserere nostri (CS1575)

Is this just a typo with the wrong name listed or is there something more to it? In his seriously impressive critical edition of CS1575, Milsom really gets into the nitty gritty of how the canon works and how it may have been conceived. Even the use of a more unusual plural form of the text, 'Miserere NOSTRI', suggests two composers. As it is the final piece in the collection, a collaboration seems apt.

But why do I care about this? I suppose part of what I appreciate about Byrd isn't just his music, but the whole network of composers and musicians with whom Byrd worked and lived. Cliche, I know, but the late 16th, early 17th century really is a fascinating time in English history. Moreover, music and music making is particularly central to many of the bigger political, intellectual, and philosophical debates that make this a period of Big Change. The relationships between these various musicians, musical or otherwise, helps historians understand the role music played in people's lives.

Sing Joyfully

Back to personal anecdotes. My junior year of my undergraduate (third year of four, for you Brits) I spent the year at Harvard College and as a member of the University Choir as a choral scholar. It was my first introduction to liturgical singing in the English tradition, something that has since become a cornerstone of my recreational/emotional/musical life. Joyful indeed.

Tribue Domine

Nothing like a wild night of getting together with your 10+ closest singing pals in a random church and singing through 'big' repertoire that doesn't often get an outing in your average church service (usually due to the number of tenors needed or the length or both). Not for any audience or pay. Just for fun.

I am only somewhat exaggerating when I say this is basically why this native Californian lives in the UK. Tribue just works for this kind of social reading. It seems to come together effortlessly, but at the same time still requires intent focus. There are marked decisions to be made as a group that require non-verbal communication, and when consensus is met in that moment, the result is magical. Particularly sung without a conductor, it is conducive to a real feeling of group flow.

Rorate Caeli / Vigilate

These are here just because they are fun to sing.

Rorate caeli also holds a special place in my memory because I conducted it in my first Advent programme in the Courtauld Gallery - the first of many fond memories there.

I have specifically put this recording of Vigilate here to draw attention to Will's ridiculous popped collar. Vigilate is a bit of a 'Stile special', and I have greatly enjoyed working with this ensemble on our #Byrd400 'Reasons to Sing' Education Outreach project.



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