William Byrd: Masses for 3, 4 and 5 voices

Mus. 489-493 - Christ Church Library (Oxford, United Kingdom)

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William Byrd is known as the most important composer during the time of William Shakespeare and his masses can probably be counted among the greatest examples of Latin vocal polyphony from England during the late 16th century. The Englishman took a chance with the scoring of these compositions, which no one else had had the courage to do for 30 years. Since the 1559 Act of Uniformity, the practice of the old Catholic liturgy was strictly forbidden, violation of which brought the threat of high fines and prison terms, or even death in exceptional cases. Today, the masses with their clear lines and expressive intonation of the words of both the Catholic and Protestant liturgy also enjoy great popularity today in concert programs.

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William Byrd: Masses for 3, 4 and 5 Voices

William Byrd (ca. 1543-1623) took a particularly big chance with his Masses for 3, 4 and 5 Voices, because the practice of the old Catholic liturgy was forbidden since 1559 by the Act of Uniformity. As the English composer and organist published the pieces in five books ca. 1590, he had the courage to do what no English composer had dared for 30 years and thus earned fines and imprisonment. The works were each a mass composed for three to five voices, which corresponded to the typical way for recording 16th century vocal polyphony. Today, the three masses enjoy great popularity in both the Catholic and Protestant liturgies, as well as in concert programs.

Exciting History behind Creative Compositions

After his 20 years of service in the Royal Capella as the court composer for Queen Elizabeth I, Byrd decided to move to Essex in order to betake himself into the protective hands of the Catholic Petre of Writtle family. In their manor house, Ingatestone Hall, Catholic masses took place behind closed doors. It was for them that Byrd wrote his three pieces, which he first dared to publish as the climate grew more tolerant under James I. They are probably the greatest examples of Latin polyphonic verse in late 16th century England, which distinguish themselves through their clear lines and expressive intonation of the words.

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