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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 16 The End of Perfection
Richard Taruskin

The final stage was devoted to the setting of forbidden liturgical texts, coinciding with Byrd’s effective retirement, at the age of fifty, from the royal chapel and his removal to a country home, where he joined a recusant community headed by a noble family named Petre. It was for this community and others like it, evidently, that his late work was intended. From 1593 to 1595, Byrd issued three settings of the Mass Ordinary, one a year, respectively for four, for three, and for five voice parts. This, finally, was music that could only be sung behind closed doors. The first Mass Ordinary settings ever printed in England, they were issued without title pages (but as Kerman observes, “Byrd’s name was coolly entered as author at the top of every page”).21

In 1605 and 1607, Byrd followed up with two ambitious volumes of Propers, called Gradualia. In them, he supplied England’s clandestine Catholics with a comprehensive body of gorgeously wrought but modestly scaled polyphonic music for their whole liturgical year—a veritable Magnus Liber, to recall the first such attempt, at Notre Dame de Paris, as long before Byrd’s time as he is before ours. More immediately, Byrd was following in the footsteps of Henricus Isaac who about a hundred years earlier had received a commission from the Swiss diocese of Constance to set the whole Graduale to polyphonic music, and responded with three big books called Choralis Constantinus; they were finally published between 1550 and 1555, long after Isaac’s death in 1517, in an edition by his pupil Ludwig Sennfl, who put the finishing touches on the last items.

Isaac’s settings, based on Gregorian chants as advertised by the title of his book, used the cantus-firmus and paraphrase techniques of his time. Byrd’s settings, employing no traditional melodies, were (like his Ordinaries) the concise and tightly woven epitome of a half-century’s striving after imitative perfection. (Between 1586 and 1591, another Proper omnibus, the Opus musicum by the flamboyant Austrian Catholic composer Jakob Handl, containing a record-breaking 445 motets in an ostentatious variety of styles, many of them avant-garde for the time, was published in Prague.)

Byrd’s preface to the Gradualia contains one of the most eloquent humanistic descriptions of musical rhetoric ever penned. Sacred words, he wrote, have an abstrusa et recondita vix (translatable as “a cryptic and mysterious power”). Yet what Byrd affected to attribute to the words, however, was really the power of his own musical inspiration. “As I have learned by trial,” he continued, “the most suitable of all musical ideas occur as of themselves (I know not how) to one thinking upon things divine and earnestly and diligently pondering them, and suggest themselves spontaneously to the mind that is not indolent and inert.”22 One pictures the composer walking about, pen in hand, mulling and muttering the words he is to set, deriving his musical ideas from their sound as uttered in his own earnest voice, and weaving the polyphonic texture out of motives so acquired. It is the consummate balance of distinctive personal enunciation and lucid formal design that is so affecting in Byrd’s last works. His way of shaping musical motives—so closely modeled on the precious, threatened Latin words—into contrapuntal structures of such dazzling technical finish at once sums up the whole notion of the ars perfecta and raises it one final, matchless and unprecedented notch.

In the case of the Masses, the works are literally without precedent. The tradition of Mass composition in England was decisively broken by the Reformation. Nor were the grandiose festal Masses of Taverner and his generation—implying a secure institutional backing and leisurely confidence in execution—suitable models for Masses that would be sung by undercover congregations in rural lofts and barns, using whatever vocal forces the congregation itself could muster up. Nor is there any indication that much continental Mass music—unprintable stuff in England—could have come Byrd’s way. This was a wheel that he would have to reinvent.

He did it on the basis of his own motet-writing experience, in which he had worked out a very personal synthesis of ars perfecta imitation and rhetorical homophony. Byrd’s Masses are in effect extended, multipartite “freestyle” motets of this kind, affording a whole new way of approaching the text, a manner unprecedented on the continent where composers wrote their Masses by the dozen. Byrd was one composer—the one Catholic composer, as Kerman has remarked—who did not take that text for granted, but who set it with unexampled and unparalleled awareness of its semantic content: a very idiosyncratic awareness, in fact, as befitted his plight and that of his community.23

The only continental Mass, as it happens, that is in any significant way comparable to Byrd’s settings is the Missa Papae Marcelli, where Palestrina had also, if for very different reasons, adopted a cell- or module-oriented technique of composing, playing imitation off against homorhythm. Since the most revealing comparisons are those that discover difference in a context defined by similarity, it will repay us to concentrate on the same two sections from Byrd as we did from Palestrina: the Credo and the Agnus Dei (Ex. 16-17). And the first difference we discover is that where Palestrina had segregated the two techniques (systematic imitation, declamatory homorhythm), Byrd integrates them with singular terseness and word-responsiveness.

The contrast shows up particularly in the Agnus Dei, where the one by the official Catholic was contrapuntally rich and calmly imposing, the ones by the closeted Catholic (besides being leaner, not necessarily by choice) are rhetorically complex and restlessly significative. “Restlessly,” because the rhetoric and the signification of the setting changes radically, as Kerman has keenly observed, from Mass to Mass. To make the comparison finer yet, then, let us contrast Byrd with Byrd as well as Byrd with Palestrina.


(21) Joseph Kerman, The Masses and Motets of William Byrd (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), p. 188.

(22) Dedication of Gradualia, Book I (1605) to King James I, adapted from Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 328.

(23) See Joseph Kerman, “Byrd’s Settings of the Ordinary of the Mass,” JAMS XXXII (1979): 416–17.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 16 The End of Perfection. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016011.xml