English Masters—Music of William Byrd & Henry Purcell — May 2009

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Program Notes

ENGLISH MASTERS—Music of William Byrd and Henry Purcell

At a time when Italy, Spain, France, and Germany were developing their own special national styles in the field of secular music, England was developing a distinctive style in church music. The complex social and religious situation that followed the Reformation (Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1534) had a profound and widespread effect on music. From about the middle of the 15th century to the Reformation, the characteristic style of English church music consisted of a conservative design with florid style. The turn of the 16th century saw an impressive production of large-scale choral music, generally with a cantus firmus (based on an existing melody, most often a plainchant melody) and in highly ornate counterpoint. The polyphony was luxuriant, elaborating the thread of the original chant into a rich tapestry. Much of this music is preserved in the Eton Choir Book (copied 1490–1502), the largest source of English church music of its era.

The English rulers gave composers of church music a hard time, changing their instructions much too often. Henry VIII allowed florid Latin music for his Catholic religious rites. Edward VI (ruled 1547–1553) nearly suppressed it by instating a more spartanthe Protestant liturgy, while Mary Tudor (ruled 1553–1558) restored the Roman rite and its music and persecuted Protestants so cruelly she became known as “Bloody Mary.” Elizabeth I (1558–1603), the last Tudor monarch, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, in turn established the Anglican Church as we know it, and under her rule Thomas Tallis composed much of his music. Finally, the attempt by James II Stuart to reintroduce the Roman Catholic liturgy contributed to his loss of the throne three years into his reign in 1688. Purcell himself had composed music for his coronation in 1685. Obviously composers had difficult decisions to make as their personal beliefs came into conflict with the “official” liturgy. In fact the topic of their more or less secret religious beliefs occurs regularly in discussions of composers of the age like Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

William Byrd (1543–1623) was a Catholic who remained faithful to the Church of Rome even though he held high positions in Anglican churches. He produced fine music for the English church although his works for Rome are of a higher quality. Byrd is regarded as the first of the composers of the “golden age of music” that began in the middle years of Elizabeth I’s reign. A sober and pious man, he spent most of his professional life playing the organ for the Protestant Chapel Royal (from 1570 to 1623). He was a pupil of Thomas Tallis, from whom he learned his conservative style and inherited his the fondness for cross-relations (the close juxtaposition of a note in its natural form and with an accidental, such as F and F-sharp or A and A-flat). Tallis was also a shrewd businessman, managing to receive and hold with Byrd the “privilege” (monopoly) of music printing in England.

Byrd is credited as being the first to composer to write “verse-anthems,” in which sections or “verses” for one or more soloists with instrumental accompaniment alternate with sections for full chorus, as opposed to the “full” anthem for chorus only. (The (English word “anthem,” derived from “antiphon,” is the equivalent of a Latin motet—a sacred vocal piece.) Byrd’s music exhibits great subtlety and flexibility in handling imitative techniques and in manipulating texture, and displays a new expressiveness of melodies together with a new freedom in choosing texts. The shapes of his motives are often suggested by the words he is setting. He avoids madrigalisms and obvious word painting, but his themes are tied closely to the text. Often his motets are longer than those of contemporary composers so that he can spin out his contrapuntal lines in complex and intriguing ways.

In 1605 and 1607 Byrd published a collection called Gradualia in two volumes, which contained settings of music for the mass and the office properthe first such collection since Isaac’s Choralis Constantinus of 1508–17. The volumes contain over 100 motets for the Catholic year, composed in all known techniques. It is not known what the purpose of such books was, since the Catholic mass was forbidden. In this collection there are many concise and attractive pieces, such as the sequence hymn “Ave verum corpus” for the feast of the Corpus Christi, on a text by Pope Innocent VI. This “Ave verum” is a fairly chordal setting, spiced by piquant cross-relations and very expressive harmonies. Also from this collection are “Alleluia, Ave Maria,” and “O magnum misterium,” the former for five parts, the latter for four. The fourth motet in Latin in this program, “Tristitia et anxietas,” was published earlier, in the volume Liber primus sacrarum cantionum (London, 1589) containing all five-part sacred pieces. All these are imitative compositions, often extremely expressive and showing great attention to text.

The anthem “Sing Joyfully” was one of the most popular in Byrd’s day, as shown by the many dozens of both manuscript and printed sources that include it. It is scored for six parts and it is based on the first four verses of Psalm 81. (Another piece on today's program, “Sing We Merrily” is based on the same lines of Psalm 81, but from a different textual source.)  The most notable feature of this lively contrapuntal piece is its musical allusion to the instruments mentioned in the psalm, especially the trumpet. The first part of the anthem “Sing We Merrily unto God Our Strength” for five voices is based on the first two lines of Psalm 81. It was included in the 1611 collection of Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets … fit for Voyces or Viols, which was to be Byrd’s last published songbook. It contains jubilant full anthems (really motets in English, like “Sing We Merrily”), mournful verse anthems, six-part consort songs and polyphonic songs appreciably more madrigal-like than those of 1589 (but still not very Italian in style). This extensive anthem, in two parts, lists instruments as well, and starts the second part (on verses 3 and 4 of Psalm 81) with the blowing of the trumpet. As in “Sing Joyfully,” the trumpet is portrayed by a line moving in thirds, since natural trumpets (i.e. without valves) could not play a scale.

The same 1611 Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets… includes also “Praise Our Lord, All Ye Gentiles,” scored for six voices. Its stunning “Amen” is longer and more florid than any other on the program. Notice also the long notes for “forever.” The full anthem in English “O Lord, Make Thy Servant Elizabeth” for six voices was first published in a 1641 collection but survives in many manuscripts. The piece is predominantly homophonic, or chordal, but when the text mentions granting the queen a long life the voices engage in a seemingly endless series of imitative entrances to illustrate the concept. A brief but beautiful “Amen” concludes the piece. Another anthem, “Prevent Us, O Lord,” for five parts, was also included in that 1641 collection and in at least ten other manuscript sources. Its text is “‘the fourth Prayer after the Communion before the Blessing,”’ as the sources state. This work is somewhat more conservative than others in the collection, with points of imitation alternating with homophony. One noteworthy moment is the setting of “holy” (in “we may glorify thy holy Name”) in florid melismas for the two alto parts. The soprano part often separates itself from the other parts’ texture. Note also the many typical cross relations.

Henry Purcell (1659–95) was probably born at Westminster, into a family of active musicians. He showed musical gifts very early. As a boy he served as a chorister in the Royal Chapel where his father and his uncle sang. In 1673, when his voice broke, he became the keeper of the king’s wind and keyboard instruments. In 1677 he became also the composer for the court violins. He studied under John Blow, who in 1669 had become the organist of Westminster Abbey. In 1679–80 Blow gave up his position in favor of his gifted pupil. Purcell retained the post until his death. In the same year Purcell married. His first son died at less than two weeks old, and two more sons died in infancy before two children survived to adulthood—a girl and a boy. In 1682 Purcell became an organist of the Chapel Royal. When Charles II died in 1685, (1685) his successor James II reorganized the court musical establishment and Purcell’s title changed from composer to “harpsicall.” The Chapel Royal, which was Anglican, became less important under this Catholic king, though Purcell retained his post. When James II fled the realm in late 1688, Purcell stopped composing for the court, though under William and Mary he remained on the payroll. In particular he composed a famous ode for each of the queen’s birthdays, and music for her funeral in 1695. Purcell probably died of a precipitous worsening of a minor infection. His funeral took place in Westminster Abbey, where he was interred next to the organ.

Purcell is often remembered as the composer of the opera Dido and Aeneas; it and John Blow’s Venus and Adonis provide the only examples of English opera (as opposed to the English genre of the masque, which combines sung and spoken passages). This miniature work— it takes close to one hour to perform—was written for performance by “Young Gentlewomen” at Josias Priest’s boarding school in Chelsea, though it includes men’s parts and the level of performance and technique required is professional. Purcell’s output includes all the main genres of secular music of his time, especially songs but also consort music, and the main genres of sacred music. In the sacred field, both for the Royal Chapel and Westminster Abbey, he composed various service pieces and anthems. The anthems were both full and verse anthems, as well as "full with verse" (for full choir and organ, with short ensemble verse passages) and "symphony" anthems (accompanied with strings and continuo).

Surprisingly enough, given his fondness for formal counterpoint, Purcell wrote few full anthems. Apart from some spurious works, and of the eight-part “Hear My Prayer, O Lord,” which may be a fragment of an anthem with verse, there are only two, both for five parts: “I was Glad When They Said Unto Me” (perhaps written for James II’s coronation, like “Hear my Prayer”) and “Remember Not, Lord, Our Offences,” the text of which is from the Book of Common Prayer, from the “Order for the Visitation of the Sick.” “Hear my Prayer, O Lord” is a setting of the first verse of Psalm 102. Though it is for eight voices, they are treated as a single choir rather than two four-part choirs. This piece is highly contrapuntal and imitative, with each voice entering in turn, with an invocation made all the more audible by its close reiteration. The only time all voices come together is for the final chord. Spicy cross relations pepper the piece. “Remember Not, Lord, Our Offences” is scored for SSATB. The first and last phrases are homophonic and prayer-like, while the central section is contrapuntal, each phrase representing a new point of imitation overlapping the previous one.

“O Give Thanks unto the Lord” is a verse anthem, composed late in Purcell’s life (1693), which pits a four-part chorus against solo voices for the verses. The text is from Psalm 106 (verses 1, 2, 4, 5, and 46). In the last measures Purcell introduces a short instrumental refrain for two violins, performed in our program on the organ. The small group alternates with the big chorus, but they share text and musical material.

The Book of Common Prayer includes seven Funeral Sentences, of which three are “to be sung at the grave.” These are “Man that is born of a woman,” “In the midst of life,” and “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts.” Most composers set to music the other four sentences, but Purcell set just these three, perhaps to complement another composer’s set. He composed them earlier but by 1677 had revised them extensively. The first sentence is set for the full choir while the other two are treated alternately as verses. In this piece, Purcell underscores the grief of death with grinding dissonance and chromaticism. For example, at “bitter [pains]” the voices go up a tortured chromatic scale. The piece is not devoid of madrigalisms, despite its funereal purpose. For instance, at the text “He cometh up, and is cut down [like a flower]” the music moves up by step for the concept of coming up, and moves down stepwise for “cut down.”

Today’s concert offers a panoramic view of English music of the 16th  and 17th centuries, including both florid and simple styles, Latin motets and English anthems, full and verse anthems, unaccompanied pieces, and compositions with instruments and voices. As you will no doubt notice, English music tends to sound distinctively different from that of the Continent, especially in its stunning harmonies and gorgeously expressive cross-relations and triadic chords. The pungent cross-relations are a typical trait of English music of the Renaissance and Baroque and were not exported anywhere. The triadic harmony (as opposed to the many perfect intervals, fourths and fifths, of music on the Continent) lends this music a unique and very particular beauty which was appreciated at the time and beyond, and which sounds quite modern to our ears.

—© Alexandra Amati-Camperi, 2009

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