Notes and Editorial Reviews
BYRD The Great Service • Simon Ravens, dir; Musica Contexta; English Cornett and Sackbut Ens; Steven Devine (org) • CHACONNE CHAN 0789 (67: 24 &)
Simon Ravens has taken a new and interesting approach to the Great Service of William Byrd, a recusant Catholic who wrote little music for Anglican worship in the Elizabethan era. This service, called “great” because of its stylistic grandeur (a Short Service followed Cranmer’s dictum of one note per syllable), was not much used when it was new, and after the reign of Charles I was forgotten until Edmund Fellowes, the leading revivalist of early church music a century ago, discovered in 1922 a manuscript copy at Durham Cathedral, an establishment that had favored this kind of music for worship in an earlier day, leading to a first performance in modern times in 1924. In fact, incomplete sets of parts had to be found in several locations in order to assemble a full set of parts for the two five-voice choirs (singing antiphonally) that are required for it. The texture alternates between full double choirs and solo verse sections. It was recorded by Paul Callaway in 1953 (Vanguard VRS 453), then by Peter Phillips (Fanfare 10:6), Stephen Cleobury (11:2), and James O’Donnell (29:5). The first recording had been followed by three versions of only the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis by David Willcocks, John McCarthy, and David Lumsden (10:1).
While Callaway recorded the seven movements of the service, Phillips omitted the Kyrie (as musically insignificant) while adding three English anthems at the end; Cleobury filled out the evening service (the two canticles) with common service music, ending with two of the anthems Phillips chose, “O Lord, Make Thy Servant” and “Sing Joyfully”; O’Donnell framed his program with the same two anthems and added anthems and organ pieces before the Magnificat and after the Nunc dimittis. Ravens has a similar approach but some unusual additions, for he also includes the same two anthems (at the end of Matins and of Evensong) but adds a couple of Anglican psalms from Byrd’s Preces, a couple of organ pieces, and instrumental renditions of three six-voice Latin motets from the Gradualia of 1607, placed at the end of each service. Unlike any previous recording, his performing forces include a six-member instrumental ensemble. It should be noted that all the versions of the Kyrie are minimal, a minute in length (no repetitive traversal of the Ten Commandments), so Phillips’s omission of it can hardly matter much.
The instruments and the Latin motets are related to the full title that Ravens gives this program: The Great Service in the Chapel Royal. He maintains with Peter le Huray and Craig Monson that cornetts and sackbuts would occasionally be used in the Chapel Royal, and three cathedrals where manuscripts of the work have been found in modern times all used them. The idea that Byrd, who served at the Chapel Royal, would have slipped Catholic melodies into an Anglican service fits the circumstances well enough. A novel feature of this recording is the pronunciation of the text by the singers. With the help of Robert Easting, whom Ravens knew in New Zealand and who fortuitously was able to attend the recording sessions, Ravens worked out the manner of Elizabethan-era pronunciation (even as the Globe Theatre did for Romeo and Juliet in 2004).
In fact, the cornetts and sackbuts make this much more distinctive a performance than the pronunciation does. O’Donnell and Cleobury used discreet organ accompaniment, while Phillips gave an a cappella rendition (as Callaway did with a larger chamber choir). This Ravens version stands apart, a useful addition to any collection that already includes one of the earlier versions. Phillips must be placed at the opposite pole, his vocal ensemble expressing the music with pure perfection but not the realistic atmosphere of a service. Cleobury and O’Donnell represent the median approach; if I prefer O’Donnell to Cleobury, they remain similar and equally worthy interpretations.
FANFARE: J. F. Weber