From now until the end of the year The Cardinall’s Musick will be performing the sacred music of William Byrd around the UK. During the religious strife at the end of the 16th century, when other Catholic composers were fleeing to the continent, Byrd was always loyal to his country and the tour will be visiting a number of the places that he knew and where his music was heard.
The starting point was in London at Wigmore Hall on Monday. Over two seasons the hall is offering its own Byrd series, shared between The Cardinall’s Musick and counterpart Stile Antico, and it was heartening to see a capacity audience responding both to the Wigmore’s imaginative programming and an English composer whose pre-eminence in his field is often undervalued.
Throughout the evening Andrew Carwood, director of music at St Paul’s Cathedral and joint founder of The Cardinall’s Musick, put the music in context. It is impossible to recreate for modern audiences the atmosphere of religious persecution in which Byrd’s music was performed during the later years of Elizabeth I’s reign, but a running historical commentary does help.
The Great Service provided an ongoing thread through the programme. This was one of Byrd’s most impressive achievements, composed on an ambitious scale with up to 10 voices interweaving their separate parts. The romantic mist that used to envelop performances of Byrd and his contemporaries a few decades ago has now been thoroughly blown away and The Cardinall’s Musick were clear, bright and forthright, even if the voices in the line-up on this evening were not uniform in quality.
In between came shorter pieces, some from Byrd’s last collection, composed in 1611 for performance in the home. Given their intimate scale (three to six voices) and intricate rhythmic interplay, these must have been written more for the pleasure of the singers than an audience, but the sheer joy of the music can still hold listeners in its thrall. Best of all was “O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen”, a loving tribute to the monarch who was probably not only the Catholic Byrd’s artistic patron, but also his protector. It seems Elizabeth knew great music when she heard it.
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