Byrd’s Latin Masses for 3, 4 & 5 voices – No. 30 in our collection

Willia(1543 – 1623) was the leading English composer of his time, and together with  Giovanni Palestrina (c.1525-1594) and Orlando de Lassus (1532-1594), one of the acknowledged great masters of the late Renaissance. Many would suggest that Byrd was one of the very finest English composers ever to have lived. Information regarding William Byrd’s early life is scarce but it is thought that he was a chorister in the choir of the Chapel Royal, London where he may have studied under Thomas Tallis and sung alongside John Sheppard.

Fortunately almost six hundred of his works have survived: church music with Latin texts, church music with English texts, part-songs and madrigals, consort songs, instrumental ensemble music and keyboard music. Byrd’s versatility, and indeed genius, lead the present writer to conclude that he was a more important composer than either Palestrina or de Lassus . English music of the period was amazingly rich, dominating the music of the Europe in both depth and variety, in a manner unparalleled before or since.

Byrd composed three Latin Masses (for three, four, and five voices) during the period 1593-1595. These masses are unusual because they include settings of the “Kyrie” – something not previously seen in any English masses and because they would have needed to be played in private. These masses show Byrd in a reflective mode and they have been composed so as to be easily performable. The masses simple expression and contrapuntal concision make them unique in Renaissance music and show signs of the classical spirit which was later to dominate Europe. They are the three pieces for which William Byrd is most famous.

We have chosen a version of these three Latin Masses performed by Andrew Carwood and the Cardinall’s Musick which feature on Volume 5 of their splendid ‘Byrd Edition’. These three outstanding works are punctuated by some of the great master’s keyboard works exquisitely performed by organist, Patrick Russill.

The Mass for Three Voices is performed at a higher pitch than usual, giving it a light and airy scoring for soprano, alto and tenor which allows the wit and invention to shine through. Whereas the Mass for Four Voices is sung with men’s voices, underlining its sombre character and sense of mysticism. The CD ends with the outstanding Mass for Five Voices which contains one of the greatest pieces of polyphony ever composed in the setting of the words of the Credo. Here it is delivered with just the right power and passion bringing to an end one of the most outstanding Renaissance discs in my collection.

Stream on Spotify or purchase from Presto Classical.

View the other works in our collection.