William Byrd: the First Rock Musician

A former chorister of mine texted me the other day to let me know he’d be in a concert of William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, a work that we used to love performing together. I couldn’t get there in time, so I decided to pull out my earbuds, find a recording on Google Play, and walk home while reliving old memories.

Every time I hear this Mass, my spine tingles. It might be hard for some to imagine something so thoroughly religious to be so exciting, but Byrd was writing back before religion was countercultural, before radios, before anyone lower than a king or queen had regular access to professional music. For most people, church was the place to hear great music.

Byrd’s three Masses were written in the 1540’s—one for three voices, one for four, and one for five. The fewer the voices, the harder they are to perform. All of them are stunningly beautiful, but surprisingly, Byrd wasn’t writing these works for a great cathedral, but rather underground, illegal Catholic Masses in newly-Protestant England. These ceremonies would’ve been in someone’s house. I imagine it being similar to going to semi-illegal rock shows that lack the required municipal permits. Not that I would know anything about that.

Byrd, though he maintained good relations with the crown, was a rebel, back when rebels could be something other than harmless entertainers. Musicologists have even speculated that his motets were frequently intended as double entendres, perhaps most famously the epic Vigilate, which emphasizes keeping watch for the master of the house—a Gospel quote but possibly also a reference to the king’s charges who went around raiding Catholic establishments.

That being said, Byrd was one of the first, if not the first, beneficiaries of copyright, a new privilege granted by the crown. Before this, there was no such legal category as intellectual property. This allowed him to make money on his published compositions, a rarer feat in those days than it is even now.

How he was able to play both sides like this escapes me, and maybe even historians too. He was even able to avoid the tax levied against those who failed to show up to the services of the state-sanctioned Church of England. One gathers he was a shrewd politician, not an image we tend to conjure up when thinking of many musicians. The volatility of those days cannot be emphasized enough. In his book The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy gives some sense of this, how government officials seized monasteries and religious paraphernalia, often destroying them. At the same time, those resistant to Protestantism frequently did the bare minimum to assure compliance, drawing a single line through a page, for instance, in order to technically liquidate it, but obviously preserving its usability. It is hard to envy Byrd’s position in the midst of this frenzy.

While the Reformation was raging in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church was doing its best to quell the exodus from its ranks. This effort, known as the Counterreformation, included not only the usual authoritarian tactics (Many statements of the Council of Trent read, “If any man says x, y, or z, let him be anathema.”), but also an appeal to the human appetite for beauty. Music was a part of this—think of the Gabrielis in Venice—but at the same time a concern for the clarity of the liturgical text called for simpler musical textures in which the words being sung could more easily be heard by the listeners.

Cardinal Charles Borromeo led the push for less ornate counterpoint. The debate was so intense at one point that there were even calls to ban polyphony from the church completely, not only because of its complex and artsy nature, but also because those ornery musicians were always hiding naughty secular themes in their work and pulling other such pranks. One thinks of the way Michelangelo depicted a well-known cardinal of that time roasting in hell in his famous Last Judgement painting in the Sistine Chapel.

Palestrina stepped into this panic against polyphony with his Missa Papae Marcelli II, which ingeniously wove two groups of homophonic textures in a semi-polyphonic way, not unlike the way Gabrieli’s brass choirs would play cori spezzati, i.e. against each other.  (Knud Jeppesen wrote a fantastic book, The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance, that goes into the composer’s technique in great detail.) This not only made the text more audible; it also rescued the music from an unduly simple homophonic texture that was often the result of similar efforts in other areas—Byrd’s England, for instance. Palestrina was considered by many to have saved polyphony from the red pens of the Fathers of the Council of Trent. It probably helped that he named his Mass in honor of a pope, too—one who reigned for a mere three weeks and likely enjoyed the popularity that often comes with such a tragic fate.

But looking at Byrd’s Masses and motets for Catholic worship, he seems not to have gotten the memo, even though his own works for the Church of England take the clarity of the text into account, a concern the Protestants shared. A student of Thomas Tallis, who was himself a student of John Taverner, Byrd claims a contrapuntal freedom that might not have existed again until the Second Viennese School, when Arnold Schoenberg emancipated the dissonance and disregarded vertical, “harmonic,” considerations in deference to the development of each individual line on its own terms, not entirely unlike Medieval and early Renaissance polyphony. (Bach was the master synthesist of counterpoint and harmony, but that is a subject for another day.)

The English were known not only for introducing the third as a consonance—until the late Medieval or early Renaissance, it, like the tritone, was avoided—but also for their sweet dissonances—a product of vertical carelessness and playfulness, for example, the cross-relation, which is a prominent feature in Tallis.

While Byrd’s counterpoint was far from the melismatic tomes of Taverner, he was not shy about making music first and letting the words fall where they may.

Where he does “fall short” in floridity, he excels in tricky vivacious rhythms that suggest the people of the Renaissance were far better dancers than we are. I like to joke that he was the first rock musician. When I shared this thought once with a friend of mine, he countered that “Gesualdo was punk.” I’ll take it.

In some places Byrd’s music is homophonic–interestingly, for instance, at Et unam, sanctum, Catholicam…ecclesiam in the Credo. In others, he employs syllabic counterpoint, yet the listener feels jostled around by the text in each vocal part being in deliberate disagreement as to what beat it falls on. This would create as much confusion about the text for the listener as the long melismas of Taverner, likely violating the “Spirit of the Council” of Trent, and I’m totally ok with that.

The Gloria and Sanctus of the Mass for Four Voices illustrate Byrd’s rhythmic dynamism. Hear how in the Et in terra pax the voices are all dropping syllables on different beats. It’s as if one doesn’t know which way to turn one’s head. Pleni sunt caeli in the Sanctus, if it is not performed at a slovenly solemn tempo, gives Take Five a run for its money. Those complicated rhythms were always the diciest part of any performance of this piece I ever took part in, but it was always the most thrilling moment in the end.

In spite of all this, Byrd is not all edgy dissonance and tricky rhythms. Frequently a cyclic Mass is tied together from movement to movement by a recurring motif. Think of the descending cells that are the building blocks of the first movements of Beethoven 5 or Brahms 4, for instance. The Mass for Four Voices is no exception. The Kyrie and Agnus Dei are particularly related, and if there’s a more beautiful melody on earth I haven’t heard it. The Dona Nobis Pacem is riddled with dark, goosebump-inducing suspensions, giving the impression that, in the midst of asking for peace, Byrd’s commentary is more like, “Yeah, right,” not unlike a similar line in the Gloria of the Bach Mass in B Minor.

This exquisite, painful beauty described above is, I feel, another hallmark of rock music. It doesn’t quite descend to irony, but someone who loves Hurt by Kurt Cobain, for instance, is likely to love Byrd, too. Both men employed a similar knife’s edge kind of beauty. This is not to glibly claim that such disparate music sounds the same, but rather simply to point out certain similarities in approach that can make otherwise unlikely musical friendships.

In my experience people of all stripes have taken well to Byrd’s music, save for a few intellects I’ve known who are hampered by a circumscribed view of what “good Renaissance polyphony” should sound like. When I first met the guy who introduced me to Townes Van Zandt, we started trading playlists. He introduced me to his world, and I introduced him to mine. I included William Byrd in his homework.

A few weeks later I asked him if he’d gotten to my playlist.

“No, not really,” he said, “but I did listen to William Byrd. That sh*t’s f*ck*n’ beautiful.”

You better believe it is.