Bach and Byrd
H+H’s superb chorus shines in a special program of joyful vocal works by J.S. Bach and William Byrd, celebrating their great vocal traditions. Come hear why Harry Christophers and the H+H Chorus are considered the finest in New England.
Handel and Haydn Society Chorus
BYRD Laudibus in sanctis
BACH Bist du bei mir
BACH Jesu, meine Freude
BACH Komm, Jesu, komm
BYRD Ye sacred muses
BYRD Agnus Dei
BYRD Ave verum corpus
BACH Singet dem Herrn
Friday March 14, 8pm, at NEC’s Jordan Hall
Sunday March 16, 3pm, at NEC’s Jordan Hall
Music has always been used to mark important occasions, both solemn and celebratory. Carefully chosen texts acquire deeper meaning when set to music, and settings that are a part of everyday services connote much more in special circumstances. What engages the ear first and remains long after is the music and the feeling evoked by it. The musical traditions represented by the works on today’s concert encompass the 16th through the 18th centuries, but begin with a much older work.
Veni creator spiritus is a plainsong (chant) hymn, the text of which was probably written by the ninth-century Archbishop of Mainz, Hrabanus Maurus. An appeal to the Holy Spirit for guidance, this hymn is sung in the Roman rite at Pentecost and on solemn occasions, such as when the cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope. The chant also appears in early English manuscripts. With the establishment of the Church of England, adaptations of the hymn were used for ordinations and, after 1625, coronations.
William Byrd (c. 1540–1623) lived during a time of great political and religious upheavals. The Church of England was established under Henry VIII who, with his minister, Thomas Cromwell, equated religious belief with loyalty to (or treason against) the crown. With the reign of Edward VI, Protestantism was firmly established; the Catholic Mass was abolished, and English was the only language permitted in worship services. During the brief reign of Mary I, a Catholic, over 280 Protestants, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, were burned at the stake for their loyalty to the Church of England.
The first years of the long reign of Elizabeth I, a Protestant, saw fewer persecutions, even though the use of the Book of Common Prayer and attending the Church of England were mandatory. Later, however, laws against Catholicism became more strict (aiding a Catholic priest was an act of treason), and penalties stiffened.
Byrd was probably a choirboy at the Chapel Royal during the reign of Queen Mary I. There he studied with Thomas Tallis, with whom he had a long association, first as student and then colleague. Byrd became the organist at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563. His extended organ playing during services (a complaint also lodged against J.S. Bach some 140 years later) upset the Lincoln Cathedral chapter, which deemed his playing too Catholic—a clear indication of the times. Byrd’s salary was suspended over the incident. It was not completely resolved until after he was named a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 and appointed as one of the chapel’s two organists. (The other was Thomas Tallis.) Byrd now climbed the social ladder of the court, gaining the favor of both Protestants and Catholics. The protection of powerful patrons under Elizabeth I, who was more tolerant of lay Catholics (so long as they remained loyal to the crown), was vital. One result of Byrd’s skills within the court was the resolution of the Lincoln Cathedral incident. After the intervention of “noblemen and councilors of the Queen,” the Lincoln Cathedral chapter agreed to keep paying Byrd one-fourth of his former salary for the next eight years with the provision that Byrd send English compositions once in a while.
In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I gave Byrd and Tallis a patent on printing part music and lined music paper. Their response was to issue a set of Latin motets dedicated to the Queen. The title of the collection translates as “Songs which are called sacred because of their texts,” suggesting, of course, that they were not to be taken as sacred works, even though some of the texts were from the Roman liturgy.
Elizabeth I accepted the dedication and, considering that she liked the Latin service and had ordered the Book of Common Prayer translated into Latin, it is assumed that at least some of these motets were sung in the Chapel Royal. After Tallis’s death in 1585, William Byrd became the sole owner of the patent, exerting great control over music publishing in England.
Byrd composed the song Ye sacred muses as an elegy on the death of Thomas Tallis. Byrd’s lyrical writing and exquisite sense of melody are a poignant tribute to his friend and colleague.
Laudibus in sanctis for five voices was published in 1591 as part of Byrd’s Cantiones sacrae (Sacred Songs). The text is a paraphrase of Psalm 150; the music creates an unwavering spirit of celebration and praise. With each section, Byrd explores new ways to paint the text musically, culminating in a jubilant setting of the word “Alleluia” to fast rhythms and imitation, then to a more exalted conclusion.
In 1593, with laws against recusants (those who refused to attend the Church of England) becoming even worse, Byrd moved with his family to Essex. There he found relative safety due to patrons such as Sir John Petre, an Essex nobleman who remained in the Queen’s favor despite being Catholic. It is for services held regularly at Petre’s manors that Byrd most likely composed his late liturgical works.
Byrd composed three Masses. They were published without title pages or dates and were smaller in size to make it easier to conceal what was an illegal publication. Byrd based the Mass for Four Voices, written in 1592–1593, on John Taverner’s Mean Mass, which Byrd probably sang when he was a choirboy. The Agnus Dei from the Mass for Four Voices adds one voice with each statement of the threefold text, going from two to four voices. With each phrase of the text, the imitation and suspensions become more breathtaking, reaching a highpoint with a series of suspensions on “Dona nobis pacem.” Many listeners find this a strikingly beautiful prayer for peace for Catholics in Byrd’s England.
The text for the Latin motet Ave verum corpus is a Eucharistic hymn from the late Middle Ages that has been set by many composers. Byrd’s setting was published in 1607 in the second volume of his Gradualia, a collection of service music for the Mass. The first volume of this publication, published in 1605, was withdrawn when the climate in England became decidedly less tolerant toward Catholics. (There is record of someone being arrested for possessing this work.) Byrd’s setting of this powerfully moving text carefully balances imitative and non-imitative passages, exerting a feeling of control over the whole of the motet.
In the Lutheran service of the 18th century, the motet was not as important as the cantata. A motet might be sung at the Sunday afternoon service (Vespers) or as part of the Sunday morning service, either at the beginning (Introit) or during Communion.
Bach’s motets were composed in Leipzig, beginning in 1723. His duties there were twofold. He was Kantor for the Thomasschule; his primary responsibilities included teaching music and directing the choirs at St. Thomas Church and St. Nicolas Church on alternating Sundays. As director musices (director of music), Bach was also responsible for overseeing church music in the city and providing music for any special occasions.
There are only six motets known to have been composed by Bach. When he needed a motet for a Sunday morning or afternoon service, he relied on a collection of Latin motets that were commonly sung in Leipzig and easy for his singers to learn. Probably the best known, Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227) is a five-part motet, the text of which uses six verses from a hymn by Johann Franck separated by passages from Romans 8. The texts Bach chose blend two sides of belief: the objective and the personal. Their alternation creates one kind of structure for the motet. Bach overlays others: the first and last movements are a chorale setting in minor; the same minor key is used for the first five movements; there is a change to major at the center movement, No. 6, which is a fugue; Nos. 2 and 10 are related by musical content; and in Nos. 4 and 8, Bach employs the highest and lowest voice parts, respectively. Bach may have written this motet for a memorial service for Johann Maria Kees in July 1723.
Why Bach wrote specific motets is not always certain; this is the case with Singet dem Herrn (BWV 225), composed between 1726 and 1727. Scored for double chorus, this motet contains three sections and uses texts from Psalms 103 and 150. In this intricate and complex work, Bach carefully draws our attention to important words in the text. For example, Bach emphasizes the first word singet (“sing”) by simultaneously using a pedal tone, text repetition, and embellished melodies to proclaim this word in an infectiously upbeat setting. Interestingly, Mozart heard this motet when he visited Leipzig in 1789.
Bach composed Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229) for a memorial service for Maria Elisabeth Schelle in March 1730. Its text does not come from the Bible; it was written by Paul Thymich (1656–1694), a German poet who studied, and then taught, at the St. Thomas School. Written for double chorus, Komm, Jesu, komm begins with the halting speech of someone whose “strength is gone.” This gradually gives way to longer and more intricate lines. The motet concludes with a chorale whose text is one of grateful acceptance.
Bist du bei mir was assumed to be a composition by Bach because it was part of the 1725 Notebook for Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife, who was a singer at the Cöthen court. However, this aria, like many works in the 1725 Notebook, is written in Anna Magdalena’s hand, and the melody has been traced to a 1718 opera, now lost, by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690–1749).
No single word can describe the diverse compositions of William Byrd and J.S. Bach. From each composer we will hear a work for solo voice, a motet that incorporates the text of Psalm 150, plus motets and a Mass movement. Although separated by time and place, Byrd and Bach share careers as church composers who took their music to new expressive heights.
Teresa M. Neff, PhD, 2014
2013–2014 Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow