How William Byrd influences music, 400 years after his death
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How William Byrd influences music, 400 years after his death
Caroline Shaw performs on the second night of the Resonant Bodies Festival at Roulette Intermedium in New York, Sept. 12, 2018. Four popular composers explain how this Englishman’s ideas ricochet through their own works today. (Bryan Thomas/The New York Times)

by David Allen



NEW YORK, NY.- The works of William Byrd hold significant historical interest, but they are also remarkably influential on music that is being written today.

Here are edited excerpts from conversations with four composers who have written pieces directly inspired by Byrd, or who grew up singing in the choral tradition of which he is such an important part.

Roxanna Panufnik

Panufnik, whose body of choral music includes a “Coronation Sanctus,” written for the crowning of Charles III, composed a “Kyrie After Byrd” in 2014 and is working on another response.

I’m really in awe of Byrd. First, how brave he was being a Catholic in such dangerous times, during the Tudors and Queen Elizabeth’s reign. That’s no joke, and thank God he was a musician, because I think that’s probably what saved him. But I love his harmony. Byrd, Tallis and Bach — I think their harmonic changes are more emotional, and sometimes more radical than a lot of 19th-century composers. He was really a man ahead of his time.

Susie Digby formed this professional choir, ORA Singers, and she wanted to do a project where people took their inspiration from Byrd. She particularly wanted for me to do something from his five-part Mass. As soon as I heard the Kyrie, immediately — there’s a certain harmonic U-turn in the middle of the road, in the middle of the stave, and I just thought, “Oh, my goodness, that’s what I want to do.” So I started it like Byrd, but then took it a step even further, or two, or three.

James MacMillan

MacMillan — like Byrd, a committed Catholic — recently wrote “Ye Sacred Muses” for the King’s Singers and Fretwork, the viol consort. The piece employs a text that Byrd used to commemorate Thomas Tallis.

I first got to know his music, and first sang his music, as a teenager at school in Scotland. Our high school choir was singing bits of his four-part Mass. As a fledgling composer, who was very interested in early counterpoint and getting to grips with how you should handle complexity, it was a wonderful lesson in how to make line against line work in a piece of music. His music is known among the singing community, the choral community, but maybe beyond that he’s not as well known as he should be. Classical music audiences tend to forget about the pre-Baroque, and it’s a pity because William Byrd is one of music history’s great figures.

Another wonderful motet by Byrd is “Justorum animae,” which is basically a commemoration or a celebration of martyrs. It’s quite clear whom he means. He was seeing people being put to death because of their faith. I think Byrd and Tallis knew people who were arrested, and I think there were some composers for one reason or another during this time arrested. They must have thought that that could have been in the cards. The only comparable situation today is in dictatorships, behind what was the Iron Curtain — Shostakovich living with fear, with his bag packed, ready to go.

Caroline Shaw

Shaw, a singer, violinist and composer, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for “Partita for 8 Voices.”

I grew up singing in an Episcopal church choir, and I don’t think we really sang much Byrd then. But when I was at Yale, I started singing at Christ Church New Haven, which is a High Anglican church. We would often do the Byrd for Four, Byrd for Five [two of the Masses] at the services in the morning, or the motets. The thing that really is the biggest influence on my writing, and approach to music, is the Compline service, which we would do on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. There are two particular ones that I remember: “Ne irascaris,” which is so beautiful, the one that starts with the men in the bottom and then the higher voices come in later; and “Justorum animae.”

There’s a physical experience to singing Byrd or Tallis, or a lot of that era of music. It’s the feeling of early polyphony and homophony, where they’re just enjoying the sound of voices together, and the beginnings of harmonies moving, and getting to make sound in these beautiful spaces, where the resonance of certain chords is spiritual. The first part of “Partita” that I wrote, which was “Passacaglia” — I wanted to hear the sound of a bunch of voices just kind of chatting gutturally, going into vocal fry and then suddenly exploding into a chord that feels like that, feels like one of those Byrd or Tallis, perfectly voiced chords, just the resonance of it.

Nico Muhly

Muhly grew up singing in an Episcopal church, and continues to write works in the Anglican tradition. Several of his pieces reflect the importance of Byrd, most explicitly “Two Motets,” an orchestration of “Bow thine Ear” and “Miserere mei, Deus.”

For me, the highest form of personal and artistic satisfaction is: Some random introit of mine is happening at Magdalen College, Oxford, and they’re also doing the Byrd “Sing Joyfully.” That, to me, is the pinnacle. You’re in this kind of linked-up way with music whose power comes in completely different ways than the Romantic tradition. Of course, with Byrd, most of it is designed for people to look upward and inward, because it’s sacred music. So for me the project is, how do you bring that into concert music, or how do you write music that is honest and engaged with that tradition, without a fuss?

It’s part of my daily listening, it’s part of my year, in the context of going to church. There’s always a Byrd for something. I do simultaneously love thinking about his political positioning, and I love thinking about the relationship of Catholicism to what he’s doing. But I also feel like what he gets at is a more delicious form of engagement with the ear, which is to say: If you don’t know that — if you don’t know everything that was going on with his faith, and how that was practiced, and where that was practiced — the ear, I think, still can articulate that there’s a deeper well of meaning.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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