March 3, 2013 - 5:00 PM
Choral Evensong
  • Intoit: William Byrd Miserere mei, Deus
    Preces: Byrd
    Psalm 34, chant: John Goss
    Canticles: Byrd Second Service
    Anthem: Thomas Tallis Salvator mundi

About the Music

 The forty-day season of Lent was established by the early Church with a three-pronged purpose.  First was commemorating significant Biblical events involving the number 40:  the forty days’ flood in Noah’s time, the Israelis’ forty years of wandering, Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the desert – this number signifying times of spiritual and physical testing.  Second was requiring a period of spiritual examination, penitence and self-denial.  Third was preparing catechumens for Holy Baptism during the rite of Easter Vigil.

The music selected for tonight, the third Sunday of Lent, symbolizes this season of atonement and expectancy.  The program features William Byrd, one of the originators of the musical style that marked the Protestant Church of Tudor England, yet a devout Catholic whose faith was tested throughout his life.  And so it seems fitting to explore briefly his career and lasting influence, as well as that of his friend, tutor, and colleague, Thomas Tallis, composer of Salvator mundi, this evening’s anthem.  The two even made it onto a modern blog:  Holy Women, Holy Men (Church Publishing), along with their contemporary, John Merbecke (1510-1585), whom some will recognize as the arranger of service music included in the 1982 Hymnal.

Byrd and Tallis’ luminous motets, Miserere mei, Deus and Salvator mundi, serve as fitting bookends to this Lenten service of sung evening prayer.

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William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) began his musical life early, studying with the renowned Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585).  The two would later become compositional and publishing collaborators.  In his position as organist and choirmaster at Lincoln Cathedral, the young Byrd ran up against the disapproval of his music by Puritan-leaning clergy, so he didn’t stay long.  Later appointed Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, he continued to compose prolifically – an output, over his lifetime, of over 480 pieces for the church and for the court.

Byrd’s contributions to the sacred and secular music of Tudor and Jacobean England, and his rich legacy that is honored to this day, cannot be overstated.  As a proto-Baroque composer, he introduced the consort song as well as the verse-anthem (discussed below).  A writer of elaborate and dangerously symbolic Catholic music (employing texts from Jeremiah and Lamentations to depict the “exile” and plight of Catholics in Protestant England), he bequeathed a  body of memorable pieces to the Anglican Church as well.

Byrd and his former teacher and later business partner, Thomas Tallis, despite their allegiance to Catholicism, were able to persuade the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I, to grant them a monopoly on printing music, which she did because she was a lover of their elaborate style so loathed by her late brother, the puritanical King Edward VI.  From this collaboration came the Cantiones Sacrae, a collection of 34 Latin motets (17 composed by each), which the patent-holders astutely dedicated to Her Majesty on the occasion of her 17th year as monarch, in 1575.  Though not commercially successful, the Cantiones introduced some of the two composers’ most memorable works, including Tallis’ dazzling Salvator mundi, this evening’s anthem.

William Byrd’s deeply emotional Miserere mei, Deus, based on a portion of Psalm 51, is an example of the composer’s genius at creating a musical architecture of polyphonic rising and falling lines by each successive voice part, interspersed by a chorale-like gathering of the voices.  This breathtaking motet evokes the anguish – and hope – of King David’s heart-wrenching mea culpa.

Like all of his compositions, William Byrd’s sprightly Preces and Responses continue to be an integral part of sung evening worship in churches and cathedrals throughout the Anglican Communion.

In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Judith Blezzard wrote of British composer John Goss (1800-1880), “[He] was one of the most important early Victorian composers, his anthems and services being most notable for their flexibility of phrasing, attention to detail in word setting, and sense of proportion and balance.”  That description is particularly fitting to Goss’ popular setting of Psalm 34, Benedicam Dominum.  Yet Sir John may be most fondly remembered for the familiar hymn tune Lauda anima (“Praise, my soul, the King of heaven”) and for his moving setting of “O Saviour of the World.”

William Byrd wrote four Services for the English Church.  The Anglican Singers are performing for the first time the Second Service.  These canticles are examples of the style, novel in England at the time, of the verse anthem (alluded to above).  In simplest terms, the verse anthem alternates between sections for solo voice and the full choir – a sort of antiphony or “call and response” form.  The verse anthem, unlike the motet, is accompanied.  (A better known example of this genre is Orlando Gibbons’ “This is the record of John.”).  In the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis, recitative interludes intersperse the full-voiced chorale sections.

Byrd (like Tallis) also made use of a device known as a “false relation,” or deliberate dissonance that quickly resolves but leaves the listener wondering if the choir made a mistake.

The Second Service was written for five voices, treble, two countertenor parts, tenor and bass.  The Magnificat is a lively, fast-paced piece, in contrast to the serene Nunc dimittis.

The text of Tallis’ radiant Salvator mundi (“Saviour of the World”) is taken from the Matins Antiphon, Matins being the first of the Canonical Hours (in the predawn hours of the new day).  The opening bars of Salvator mundi are eerily reminiscent of the first notes of Tallis’ stunning Spem in alium.  Like Byrd’s Miserere mei, Deus, the musical line of this motet rises and recedes like light above the nave of a soaring Gothic cathedral.

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It is with joy that the Anglican Singers dedicate tonight’s service to St. James Episcopal Church, whose generous support of the chorus has enabled the group to call this sacred space home for over sixteen years; and they look forward to a collaborative future of keeping alive and vibrant, in New London and beyond, the beloved and venerable tradition of choral evensong.

Anne Carr Bingham