It may seem an odd phrase to describe music by the serious Byrd, who was well-known as a devout Catholic at a time when to be a supporter of the Roman Catholic Church was to risk imprisonment, torture and even the terrifying traitor’s death (to be hung, drawn and quartered).
Director Andrew Carwood set out the historic background against which William Byrd wrote his wonderful music during the entertaining festival finale by his peerless Cardinall’s Musick ensemble, which is celebrating its silver jubilee this year.
With the constant fear of a Spanish invasion and conspiracies, including the Throckmorton plot, to put the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne, it was a time of national paranoia. Spies were everywhere – to be a known Catholic was to court disaster. But Byrd was a musical genius and the Queen enjoyed good music.
The theme of the concert was The Great Service, music Byrd wrote for the Church of England, settings of some of the great prayers and psalms, including the Venite, the Te Deum and the Benedictus.
The first half of the concert also included a text drawn from Psalm 21, with words dedicated to the Queen, “O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen to rejoice in thy strength …”
Most of Byrd’s music was settings of Latin texts, including three Masses, but The Great Service was in English. It is a sophisticated and complex work, for 10 separate parts, requiring a level of skill that was probably only available in the Chapel Royal, where Byrd was a Gentleman in Ordinary. The Chapel Royal, which travelled with the monarch on her progresses around the country, comprised the finest singers, musicians and organists of the day.
Carwood described The Great Service, and the song to the Queen, as a “party piece” and suggested that they were written for this exemplary group, and as a tribute to England’s great Queen.
The second half featured two of the great evensong hymns, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, and four songs which enabled the 10 singers, in various small groupings of trio, quartet and sextet, to demonstrate their virtuosity.
This was a thrilling performance, with brilliant singing, and an informed and entertaining commentary from the director, and a perfect finale for this year’s 15th anniversary Sherborne Abbey Festival.