W.When William Byrd and his mentor Thomas Tallis published the Cantiones Sacrae in 1575, it may have hinted at a bright future for Anglican music. , Byrd accepted Catholicism. Byrd and his wife were repeatedly fined and their names placed on a government watch list for refusing to attend Protestant services by refusals. Relegated, masses were held in private homes by illegitimate priests.
The secret celebratory spirit of the Catholic Mass is at the heart of Bill Berkley’s Secret Bird, an immersive concert held in the candlelit crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. Priest is a Jesualdo Six vocal ensemble, tastefully done with doublets and hoses, and director Owain Parks as Priest replaces modern citizens with somber robes. and sing Bard’s Sublime Mass from the real single-voice partbook while Parkes pours holy water on them. As the door is ominously slammed, the audience is instructed to crowd the floor as the candles go out. It’s all chillingly authentic, but while Barclay intends for audiences to move around during the performance, it offers little directorial impetus to do so, and line of sight is sometimes an issue. .
Musically it’s great. The all-male voice rang with precision of intonation and ecstatic connection to the text, which would have pleased Byrd. The choir also acts as a waiter, serving bread and soup to the audience at the moment of communion. Their partner is Fretwerk, a master of the viol his consort. Their uplifting contributions, including a lighthearted account of Byrd’s folk-song-inspired Fantasia on Browning, made for an engaging but otherwise sober affair.
Known as the ‘Father of English Music’, Byrd was a great artist, a brave man and a believer in freedom of thought. There is no better way to celebrate his 400th anniversary this year.