Andrew Carwood sings Byrd's praises

Andrew CarwoodWed 29th February 2012

The artistic director of The Cardinall's Musick prepares for a William Byrd tour

I’ve always been a fan of complete editions. Partly it is a boyish delight in collecting things, but there is something wonderful about being able to revel in the complete works of a composer. The Cardinall’s Musick have recently completed a survey of Byrd’s Latin church music in 13 volumes and were thrilled to receive the Gramophone Record of the Year in 2010 for our final volume. As the project went on, we were constantly in awe of the high quality of the writing, the way in which Byrd could weave sacred and secular styles together, and the level of emotion that is present in his works. All this from a man who remained at the forefront of musical developments during a life that spanned 83 years.

The Cardinall’s Musick’s Byrd Tour 2012 will present all of the great man’s Latin music in 16 concerts in a variety of venues throughout the UK: from Canterbury to St David’s, from the Orkneys to Brighton, plus three London performances. Also included in the tour are several venues specifically connected to leading 16th-century Catholic figures, including Arundel, the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk; Fotheringhay, the site of the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots; and Stondon Massey, the place to which Byrd retired and eventually died. Each concert will feature one of Byrd’s mass settings and then a selection of his motets, with a theme in each concert allowing us to explore the various feast days in the Church’s calendar.

It is not just that Byrd was a great musician or that he produced so much music. Nor is it simply that he had a complete mastery of every genre that he touched. It is the context in which he wrote that provides the extra excitement in his music. It is hard for us now to appreciate the divisive nature of religion in the 16th century. For those who clung to the old Catholic religion, being deprived of the right to worship freely and express their views openly was at best inconvenient and, at worst, life-threatening. Censures, public records and fines were the least of the punishments and at the other end of the scale was imprisonment, torture and, in the case of some priests, a gruesome death.

This was Byrd’s life and it obviously had a profound impact on him. Combined with his superb musical mind it led him to produce powerful, overtly emotional music which needs to be heard. It is not enough simply to enjoy the sonorities that he manages to achieve – that is merely to scratch the surface. I believe that audiences will be amazed at how much dramatic power is to be found in his music, more than that achieved by any of his contemporaries. We hope this tour will allow Byrd to rise, phoenix-like, to take his rightful place as one of the finest composers of all time.

The Cardinall’s Musick begin their William Byrd tour at the Wigmore Hall on March 5; for full details, visit cardinallsmusick.com

Andrew Carwood's picture

Andrew Carwood

Andrew Carwood is artistic director of The Cardinall's Musick, a vocal ensemble renowned for its extensive study of Renaissance music.

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