“Sacred words have a cryptic and mysterious power. As I have learned by trial, 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.” — William Byrd
Byrd’s late masses are a stunning portrait of faith during a time of religious persecution. Because being a Catholic was not simply a matter of course (as it was for Palestrina) and ars perfecta innovations were kept from England after Henry VIII’s split with the pope, Byrd was forced to “reinvent the wheel.” And we can all be glad he did. The Mass Ordinary, whose text was set thousands of times in the 15th and 16th centuries, becomes something altogether new in his deft hands. The sheer freshness of Byrd’s text settings along with an innovative and deeply expressive harmonic language (including liberal use of “cross relations,” where a pitch will occur in natural and chromatically-inflected forms in close proximity) has led many scholars to approach these masses hermeneutically (interpretively). The statement of “Agnus Dei” at 1:48 is a literal, urgent call to Christ.