Singing Byrd in a cage

Tudor composer William Byrd concealed his true faith in music – and his yearning for a return to better times resonates with us today in the chimes of the chapel choir.

The song of Byrd
The song of Byrd echoes in the chapel at Worcester College, Oxford. Credit: Eye Ubiquitous via Getty Images

In the 1590s, the English Composer William Byrd published three settings of the Ordinary Mass: one for three, four, and five voices. The settings were published in limited runs, and the small pages gave no indication as to who had arranged the music, or who had printed the text. The surviving editions have no title page – and nor is there any certainty that one originally existed; the music was published with a careful anonymity normally reserved for scandalous political tracts or outrageous satire.

While the Elizabethan Settlement combined some elements of medieval Catholicism with the spirit of reformatio, the 1559 Act of Uniformity replaced Catholic liturgical worship with the Book of Common Prayer. All settings of Latin Mass had to be performed in secret. The Tudor tradition of sung mass went into decline.

As of the 5th of November, the UK has been back in lockdown: alongside the stop to sport, theatre, and culture, all religious services have ceased. If Byrd’s haunting settings seemed other-wordly in ‘normal times’, they have a new relevance now.

It is generally thought that the three settings of the mass for different numbers of voices allowed recusant Catholics to worship in their country houses regardless of how few people were present. The limited number of singers was not simply an artistic choice; the poignant intimacy was a necessity. Byrd avoided punishment or torture – he was a member of Elizabeth I’s Chapel Royal, and wrote ‘Protestant’ music professionally – but other priests and writers were not so lucky.

Listening to any of the three masses all the way through, Byrd’s work testifies to the unwavering desire for worship when doing so puts the devout in political and personal danger. Yet Byrd’s output is also a testament to the power of creation when its very object is one that cannot be shared, performed, or revered.

Byrd’s masses are as skilled, dramatic, and expressive as any of those written in more favourable conditions; and all the more haunting when listened to with an awareness of their context. To compare Byrd’s ‘Mass for Five Voices’ with John Taverner’s ‘Mean Mass’ – also for five voices, and thought to have been written in the 1520s – is to understand Byrd’s brilliance. He was evidently influenced by Taverner, but the later setting is all the more richer and more emotive. Taverner composed while he was the organist at Christ Church, Oxford – he wrote his mass with the knowledge that it could be heard, enjoyed, and discussed openly; Byrd composed in the knowledge that his could only ever be used for hidden worship.

And indeed, it is not just Byrd’s secret-mass settings that have a peculiar bearing on our current predicament. Ne Irascaris, Domine is a three-part motet found in Byrd’s 1589 Cantiones sacrae. The Latin text is a plea for God to ‘be not angry’ as

Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est,
Jerusalem desolata est.

[Your holy city has become a wilderness.
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.]

Listening to this description of a desolate city with the memory of the ghost-town scenes of the first lockdown and the colder, greyer cities of the second is enough to make even the most ardent lockdown-supporter emotional.

The UK government have made provisions for a relaxing in restrictions over Christmas; a concession they did not make for Eid or Rosh Hashana. The flip-flopping in restrictions, and the fact that all places of worship are prevented from holding services during this lockdown – despite the obvious benefit to many people’s spiritual and emotional well-being – suggests that this decision is less about faith than a desire not to be the government who ‘ruined Christmas’ or, more pragmatically, the government who ruined Christmas spending. There is little consolation in the knowledge that five hundred years ago faith and religion were even more dramatically politicised, but there is joy to be had in listening to the music that it produced.

I do not live in an Elizabethan country house (more’s the pity), my housemates are not all recusant Catholics, and we have no priests hidden in our cupboards. But I do live with a statistically not-insignificant number of choral singers. On the last Sunday before lockdown, a number of them sang Byrd’s four-part mass in a church near us. It was extraordinarily emotional – the sparse congregation were all in tears. We are yet to reach a level of such lockdown-sadness that we try to recreate this in our kitchen, but Byrd’s masses and motets stand as a powerful reminder of the importance of music, the arts, and culture in trying times.


Francesca Peacock