Practical Performance Tips for Byrd's Mass for Three Voices
  • Does anyone have some suggestions on singing Byrd's Mass for three voices? How does the style of an English composer differ from, say, an Italian one like Monteverdi? At the Colloquium we were encouraged to sing Monteverdi lightly and lyrically, and so I would like to know what sort of image I should be holding in the back of my mind when I'm singing Byrd.

    I have a recording of the Christ Church Cathedral Choir, but it seems pretty poor sport to copy everything from a cd.
    Also, it seems to me as if the composer must have mourned for the loss of the Catholic faith in his native land. Is this feeling of loss reflected in his music?

    By the way, I have probably done something shocking (or perhaps not) by transposing this Mass for SSA.
    Any assistance rendered will be gratefully accepted!
  • Click here first and you will be directed to the Noel Jones CATHOLIC CHOIRBOOK ANTHOLOGY. You'll notice that you don't have to purchase even one copy, but everything in it can be freely downloaded, which includes a fully workable edition of the Byrd Three Voices in SA/men. When we got our copies and read through a number of things, we sight read the Byrd entirely (save Credo) and had an easy time of it. God bless Noel.
  • gregpgregp
    Posts: 632
    HannaM, not related to style directly, but there was a long discussion about the possible ways to perform the Kyrie from that Mass here:

    Byrd 3 part Kyrie

    and about the Credo:

    Byrd 3 part Credo

  • Hmmm... Lots to think about with that Kyrie. I found out a couple of useful things, but perhaps my problem is that I'm searching for some artistic pointers and those are kind of hard to translate through the typed word.

    How does an Englishman sing? What does he see in his mind's eye when he sings? I've never been to England, but most of my favorite authors are British... I'm somewhat of an anthropologist and I study people to discover their motivations.

    What is the driving mood behind Byrd's Mass? Is it joyful, sad, a mixture of both... or something completely different?

    Alas! I am only human, and need some pictures to help my imagination along :)
  • While Charles says this is an easy read, that requires some qualification. In my years of singing with the men's schola at St. Paul's in Cambridge the nearest we ever came to a train wreck happened in the Gloria of this piece. As often happens when the boys have a week off, the Byrd was programmed and on this particular Sunday the men gave it one quick run through before going on to other things to rehearse. After all, we had sung it several times before. In the sanctuary during the Mass, however, in an entirely different acoustic than the rehearsal room, things went very awry. After Mass while hanging up our cassocks and surplices the anger was palatable. We had made a fundamental error usually associated with less experienced singers. We took the Byrd casually, without our fullest attention, and paid an embarrassing price.

    Thanked by 1HannaMontanner
  • You're right, Randolph. The qualification being, for us, not having to transpose from the SSA/TTB and do the math of re-voicing part assignments. I shouldn't have said "easy" as it implies hubris, which is not a worthy goal. I only wanted to express my joy over the anthology's contents.
  • Transposing was common practice at the time, do not worry :) I have been in England and sung there and perhaps I could advice that, for Byrd, the independence of each line must be addressed first. Then its relation to the text, text comes first. The ensemble work will reflect a clear understanding of different phrasings coming together logically. I strongly recommend that you would come to New York City and attend the Choirmasters Conference at St. Thomas 5th Avenue. It will give you an opportunity to watch people like Cleobury, Higginbottom, Lumsden, Baker, Barry Rose, etc conduct rehearsals of this very repertoire. Blessings!
    Thanked by 1HannaMontanner
  • I must add, Harry Christopher and the Sixteen have a dvd (also on youtube) where they perform this mass using only 3 singers. It is breathtaking!
  • Back then I am sure that the driving goal of the singers was the pint waiting for them in the pub across the road, just as it is for many choirs today.

    The experience of singing is universal.

    For all it is very important to understand the richness of English choral music, music that was abandoned and then resurrected, not in Westminster Abbey, but in Westminster Cathedral by Terry. Yes, the Catholics resurrected the music.

    The week-long Sewanee Church Music Conference in Sewanee, TN is underway right now. Malcolm Archer has periodically led the conference and brings the rich heritage of English church music to the very affordable lodging....of this small university town just north of Chattanooga. It's worth a visit any year, especially to those with Anglican-Use in their future.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    "How does the style of an English composer differ from, say, an Italian one like Monteverdi?"

    Interestingly, I just overheard a comment at a choral warmup, from a VERY experienced and esteemed conductor, when I came early to church on Sunday:

    "This piece is Palestrina! Palestrina is in Italy, warm and sunshine and beauty, not like Byrd in dreary, cold, rainy England!"

    For what it's worth.
    Thanked by 1HannaMontanner
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    Some thoughts on general interpretation come to mind to me. But I am inexperienced and not at all learned. It's probably nothing but baloney. You should probably ignore what I have to say, but I'll give it to hopefully spark discussion:

    I find British church music to be, on the whole, somewhat conservative. Which isn't to say it's at all bland or boring, but they have a much more restricted harmonic palate to work with than, say, Victoria. It seems to me also that their vocal lines are much less interesting than in the Italian school. I can think of many beautiful, enjoyable lines in British music, but so much of it makes little sense outside of the harmonic context. Also, it seems to me that the text is very much key in British music. These pieces are NOT far-off from a simply Psalm Tone recitation.

    So when I approach such a piece as conductor, I'm looking primarily to do it "as is". No over-emoting, no huge broad shapings. If anything, maybe a standard rise and fall of dynamic with the line. Tuning should be perfect - more perfect than usual - and Bass/Soprano are key. Expression should come from the text. The music is overall very emotional, but it won't be expressed in the pitches, it has to come from the text as sung.

    Again, I'd suggest ignoring my comments. I'm just putting them out there.
    Thanked by 1HannaMontanner
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,763

    Perhaps harmonically, but I guess I find English polyphony (at least of the Tallis-Byrd-Gibbons era; I've not sung any Dunstaple, Power, Taverner or Shepherd) delights in nearly jazzy syncopation (I realize there are precedents for this in Continental polyphony, but compared to post-Tridentine-but-pre-Baroque Continental polyphony, it sticks out), false relations, and text painting that would make Handel eat his heart out. England, like Venice, was in a place that the pope's writ did not fully run (in England, because of a Protestant sovereign; in Venice, because of a very very independent aristocratic oligarchy that was happy to support experimentation in sacred music in the palatine chapel (San Marco - it's most important to understand it was under the state's thumb in that regard) and its imitators). I find English polyphony moody: that is, it ranges from austere to irrepressible. But that's just *my* impression.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,068
    Some other earlier English polyphony, for variety:

    Cornysh - Ave Maria, Mater Dei

    Taverner - Kyrie Leroy

    Taverner - Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas (complete, with cantus firmus and the troped Kyrie "Deus creator omnium")

    Tallis - Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater
    Thanked by 1HannaMontanner
  • Randolph,

    At last I know the reason for my own "train wreck" with Byrd's Gloria! I had always chalked it up to nerves before, but now I can see that it must have been the result of lack of practice in the church itself. Luckily, it didn't fall apart completely and my sisters and I were able to ride through the rough spot, but it caught us by surprise. The Gloria sounded just fine when we rehearsed it in the church basement before Mass, but when the time came to sing for real... eeek.

    Lesson learned: Always, always, always practice in the space that you will be performing in; preferably weeks beforehand.
  • Gavin,

    The "cold, dreary, rainy England" line made me laugh. But it also makes a good point. I think you're right on by saying their music is generally conservative. Through my research, and judging by the individuals I've met from Britain, it would seem as if they are personally rather reserved as a rule.

    Which is not to say bland.
    The humor in the writings of Chesterton and Dickens are great examples of the Englishman "released", if you will.

    But, all the same, this natural reserve is something to bear in mind...
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,763
    From MGM's A Tale of Two Cities (1935), with very Proper Bostonian/Maldonian Edna May Oliver (of the Boston Olivers, who were somebodies before the Cabots and Lodges were, and even before the Adamses were) as Miss Pross and Blanche Yurka as Mme La Farge:

    [Madame DeFarge has come looking for Lucie and the child. Miss Pross bars her way out]
    Miss Pross: Oh no you don't!
    Madame Defarge: Let me pass.
    Miss Pross: Never! I know what you want. I know what you're after. And thank heaven I'm put here to stop you - for stop you I will!
    Madame Defarge: In the name of the Republic...
    Miss Pross: In the name of no one, you evil woman. You've killed many innocent people. No doubt you'll kill many more; but my ladybird you shall never touch.
    Madame Defarge: No? Do you know who I am?
    Miss Pross: You might - from your appearance - be the wife of Lucifer; yet you shall not get the better of me. I'm an Englishwoman! I'm your match!
    Madame Defarge: Pig, get out of my way or I'll break you in pieces.
    Miss Pross: Break away, then. I don't care an English tuppence for myself; but I know that the longer I keep you here... the greater hope there is for my ladybird [Lucie].
    [they fight like cats and worse, during which Miss Pross exclaims "God Save The King!" and Mme La Farge responds "English pig!"; La Farge gets shot by her own gun]
    Thanked by 1IanW
  • Oy vey.

    Let's hope disagreements over polyphony never come to such a pass.
  • Byrd and Tallis illustrate mathematical precision in their writing, even when they use such techniques as double-articulation and false relations (we sang Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus this past Sunday). As to "reserved"? "O Jesu, fili Maria" in Tenor line of the Ave Maria is anything but un-emotional!

    God bless,

  • Oh my, I wonder where all this comes from, sometimes. Church music crossed boundaries and was sung in the local style. There were as many approaches as there were choirs. Most music will tell you how to perform it. Byrd tends to write rather angular lines and doesn't break up the texture by going off into duets and trios very frequently. He also loves to toss in some lovely dissonances at times. This all may arise from the usual manner in which he heard his music (in small groups of good singers that included women, in spaces less resonant than cathedrals). It's hard to tell if he imagined his works sung in the great churches of the Continent. Also his Catholic music differs a lot from his Anglican music in many respects. To sing his Masses, I'd keep the group small with very flexible voices.

    There is no doubt that his inability to worship in the open influenced his music. Just listen to the Agnus of the 4-voice Mass. There is real pain in those stacked suspensions.

    There is no SET way to sing anyone's music. Take each piece and bring out its beauty.
  • Michael,

    Of course his Anglican music was different from his Catholic music: they proceed from completely dis-continuous theologies. Tallis is another composer who demonstrates this admirably.

    God bless,