Of all the great Renaissance composers, William Byrd (circa 1540–1623) is perhaps the most approachable, the most direct in his communication, and arguably the most modern in his concerns. The gloriously continual euphony associated with Palestrina and his school has for many listeners characterized the sound of the Renaissance, experienced over generations as a model that both gave expression to the Counter-Reformation and provided a template for how music should (until recent decades) weave seamlessly into the celebrations of the Roman Catholic liturgy.
Byrd’s music seems to offer something tauter and more concentrated than this. The English music that directly preceded his was wonderfully effusive, as in the endlessly elaborated, decorative lines of the Eton Choirbook, designed for performance in a resonant acoustic. From this expansiveness Byrd distils his expressiveness down to the essentials. There is something powerfully direct in his economical word-painting, and it is always restrained by its context: et ascendit in coelum, sing the voices of Byrd’s four-part Mass, and the music suddenly spirals upward with a harmonic twist through the voices that takes it into a whole new realm of feeling. But there is no indulgence in the phrase, and the words of the Credo continue on their sober way. Dona nobis pacem, at the end of the Agnus Dei of that same Mass, is a prayer for peace that results in a series of repeated, anguished dissonances as peace is ever sought but never found, resolving at the close into a brief moment of hope as harmony is fleetingly glimpsed in eternity.
Two linked reasons for Byrd’s contemporary appeal are suggested in Kerry McCarthy’s fine, thoughtful new book, which will now be the starting point for all enthusiasts for his music. One is the complex political setting of Elizabethan England in which Byrd had to maneuver. The other is Byrd’s personal credo as a composer, equally significant. Byrd’s approach to vocal composition was made explicit in several statements he wrote for his publications, and can be stated very simply: the words came first. This primacy of the text is central to all his music for voice; he wrote of one collection that it was “framed to the life of the words.” No composer has provided quite such an eloquent guide to the source of their inspiration as did Byrd when he wrote:
There is such a profound and hidden power in sacred words, as I have learned by trial, that to one thinking upon things divine and earnestly and diligently pondering them, the most suitable of all musical measures occur (I know not how) as of themselves and suggest themselves spontaneously to the mind that is not indolent and inert.
That concept of music flowing through the agency of the composer is a startlingly modern idea that recalls what Stravinsky said about himself as …