Early Music Review

Duke Collegium Provides a Byrdseye View

November 12, 2005 - Durham, NC:

Twice a year the Duke Collegium presents a program of music from the Renaissance or early Baroque based on a particular composer or theme. Now, with the demise of Fortuna, it provides the only home-grown purveyor of pre-Baroque music in the Triangle — a heavy responsibility indeed. The ensemble, directed by Kerry McCarthy, is primarily made up of Duke graduate and undergraduate music students, with assistance from faculty and occasional townies.

This semester the Collegium featured the music of English composer William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623) in conjunction with an International William Byrd Conference sponsored by the Duke Music Department. Byrd, a life-long Catholic, whose family managed to resist Henry VIII's mass conversion of the country, also managed to keep his head and maintain professional success during the reigns of Henry's three Protestant successors, Edward VI, Elizabeth I and James I.

Byrd was extremely prolific, composing sacred music for both Protestant and Catholic services, as well as secular music for voices, viol consort and especially keyboard (virginals). With an eye towards the upcoming conference, McCarthy — herself a Byrd scholar — chose to program selections from nearly all of these genres, beginning with his English vocal music and concluding with two movements from his Mass for three voices written near the end of the compose's long life. In other words, the concert was analogous to a wine tasting, in which you should technically not even swallow the single mouthful you're allowed to sip.

As for the performance, let me say first of all that McCarthy made the proper decision to hold it in Nelson rather than Duke Chapel, where the Collegium has been wont to hold its concerts. The ensemble of 15 voices blended rather than mushed; the polyphonic lines were clearer; pitch was more stable; and the overall balance was greatly improved.

The first half of the program included a brief opening motet, "Domine, salva nos," followed by two madrigals: "Though Amaryllis dance in green," one of the age's countless flattering ditties to Queen Elizabeth and "This sweet and merry month of May." Whatever obsequies Byrd may have aimed at his queen, they obviously hit home, because Elizabeth showed him considerable favor over the course of the middle part of his career. In 1575 she granted Byrd and Thomas Tallis a patent for printing and marketing part-music and lined music paper. They collaborated in composing the Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, a collection of Latin motets for five to eight voices dedicated to the Queen.

"Crowned with flowers and lilies,"an elegy to the Catholic Queen Mary I, and "La verginella" were two songs for soprano and viol consort, sung by soloist Madeleine Hogue. Hogue has a lovely "boy soprano" voice, which she may have cultivated for this performance. The tessitura for both songs is extremely high, making enunciation difficult, and it would take a professionally-trained singer to pull it all together. The viol consort tackled a transcription for viols of one of Byrd's most famous works, the "Pavan and Galliard," originally composed for virginals. The consort sounded good, without the proverbial tuning issues.

Harpsichordist Mark Graves did perform two samples of Byrd's keyboard music, the famous "Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home" and "La volta." "Lord Willoughby" is another of Byrd's top 10, usually played considerably faster than Graves did. The program notes cited the "bittersweet" harmonies and minor key as an indication for a slower tempo, but it just didn't work for me. In both pieces, Graves tended to hesitate periodically so that I couldn't tell whether this was affectation or insecurity with the notes.

In the 1590s, when the political climate worsened for Catholics, Byrd retired to his ancestral home, protected by his Catholic patrons. To illustrate the final part of Byrd's career, the vocal ensemble sang the Sanctus and Agnus Dei from the Mass for Three Voices, one of the three great Mass ordinaries that Byrd composed as part of the two Gradualia (settings of the entire sung portions of the Mass for the entire liturgical year). Also included on the program were three Latin motets probably used for home services: the penitential motet "Tristitia et anxietas," "Optimam partem" for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and perhaps his most famous work, "Ave verum corpus."

All in all, this was among the most satisfying Collegium concerts in some time. The program was varied and interesting, setting out a sampling of the works of one of the great composers of the Renaissance. Recordings of Byrd's music are more readily available than they used to be, so that anyone wishing to dip further into the works of this great master need not go hungry.