Stile Antico gets better and better. The British ensemble of twelve singers—six women and six men—made its North American debut at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2009, and have appeared here annually ever since. Singing without a conductor, the ensemble has become known for its performances of the English Tudor repertoire and Flemish and Spanish music of the Renaissance as well as music of the early Baroque. The program presented on Friday evening at St. Paul Church, Cambridge, focused on the great five-voice Mass by William Byrd, its five movements interspersed with sacred anthems by English composers from generations immediately preceding and following his. What we heard in the glorious St. Paul space was not only beautiful sound from the well-matched and perfectly tuned voices, but fine rhythmic sensitivity to the nuances of attack and phrasing that make this music a joy both to sing and to hear. Rather than huddling together, the superbly practiced Stile Antico singers stood in a shallow semi-circle that brought out the contrast between larger and smaller vocal groups and enhanced antiphonal exchange.
Born around 1540, William Byrd is said to have been educated at the Chapel Royal as pupil and later assistant of Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585). In 1563 he was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, where there were soon complaints that his extended playing in the services was “too popish.” In 1572 he returned to the Chapel Royal as singer and joint organist with Tallis. All of Byrd’s closest associates and patrons were Catholics, including several aristocratic activists. He attended clandestine assemblies and services in the private chapels of country estates, and was also associated with the Jesuit missionaries who began arriving in England in the late 1570s. Byrd and members of his family were repeatedly cited for recusancy (refusal to attend Church of England services), yet he also enjoyed the protection of Queen Elizabeth, and the authorities never seriously bothered him. Neither a militant nor a separatist, Byrd wrote a substantial amount of Anglican music while remaining a devout “private” Catholic. The Biblical texts he chose for his Latin motets could often be read for double meanings, and in the 1590s he published Latin masses for three, four, and five parts in three separate books. It was around this time that he settled with his family in Essex, joining a Catholic community led by Sir John Petre, the most important of all Byrd’s patrons.
Byrd’s last great project was an extensive body of music for the Proper and Ordinary of the Mass, specifically intended for Catholic services. The first book of the Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae (Propers and Sacred Songs) was published in London in 1605, a few months before the unmasking of the infamous “gunpowder plot.” A collection of 108 pieces for three to five voices, its texts were drawn from appropriate sections of the Latin liturgy. Still, these settings are far from straightforward. The four-voice “Ave verum corpus,” which opened Friday evening’s program, starts out as a standard Communion prayer, but ends with an impassioned plea for mercy: “Miserere mei.” The chordal opening of Byrd’s motet could be compared with the intricate polyphony of the much earlier Pentecost motet “Loquebantur variis linguis apostoli” (The apostles spoke in different tongues) by Tallis that followed. Here, alternate verses of the vespers responsory were sung in unaccompanied chant and in elaborate seven-voice polyphony incorporating the chant as cantus firmus. As explained in the program notes, this motet was perhaps intended for performance by the joint chapel forces of Philip II of Spain and Queen Mary Tudor, during their wedding celebration in 1554. Heard later in the program, Tallis’s “In jejunio et fletu orabant sacerdotes” (In fasting and weeping the priests prayed), performed by only five singers, conveyed its penitential text through successive, harmonically unrelated triads and high-pitched cries for mercy.
Byrd’s five-part Mass was far less overtly expressive. Without recourse to any “borrowed” material, such as a chant cantus firmus, he set the texts in a relatively concise manner, yet used the beginnings of text phrases as the jumping-off point for rhythmic and melodic motives heading points of imitation. Contrasting scoring for duets and trios and full choir provided both textural variety and formal delineation. Declamatory, chordal passages — for example at the words beginning “Laudamus te” (We praise thee) in the Gloria — contrasted with imitative writing in the final paragraph, beginning “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” (For thou only art holy). In between Byrd’s Gloria and Credo, we heard motets in English by his younger contemporaries, Thomas Morley and Orlando Gibbons. Morley’s devotional song “Nolo mortem peccatoris” (I do not desire the death of a sinner) uses the Latin text line as a refrain in the manner of a medieval carol, while Gibbons’s full-throated “O clap your hands” sounded for all the world like one of the Italian balletti or dance songs that took England by storm around the turn of the seventeenth century, its texture enhanced by Gibbons’s contrapuntal mastery. The second half of the program brought the Sanctus and Agnus Dei of Byrd’s Mass along with motets by Robert White (ca. 1538-1574), Gibbons, Tallis, and Weelkes (1576-1623). The final work, the lengthy Trinity antiphon “O splendor gloriae” (Hail, splendor of the glory), attributed to John Taverner (ca. 1490-1545), took us back two generations to the richly ornamental polyphony of the early Tudor period, striking for its high treble voice parts and varied antiphonal textures. With all twelve singers participating, this was a magnificent conclusion to a richly varied and rewarding program. As an encore, the five-voice Tallis vesper antiphon “O sacrum convivium” (O sacred banquet) was a perfect fit.
Friday’s concert commemorated the funding by the Carnegie UK Trust of the publication during the 1920s of the ten-volume series Tudor Church Music (Oxford University Press) that made the works of Tudor composers readily available to scholars and was also largely responsible for their re-establishment in the repertoire of major cathedral and church choirs. In bringing this repertoire to a wider audience outside the confines of church services, the superb musicians of Stile Antico would seem to have fulfilled the wishes of the editors beyond their wildest dreams.