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Harry Christophers Breaks the Spine

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

Harry Christophers stands among today’s great champions of choral music. In partnership with The Sixteen, the ensemble he founded over 42 years ago, he has set benchmark standards for the performance of everything from late medieval polyphony to important new works by contemporary composers. His international influence is supported by more than 160 recordings and has been enhanced by his work as Artistic Director of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society and as guest conductor worldwide.

Harry Christophers sits in a chair in a coat and scarf

Close on a dozen volumes of the Byrd Edition, in that wonderful Arsenal red, sit on my music shelves but there’s one, Volume 14 to be precise, that has, only very occasionally, been opened over the years. The spine isn’t even broken - (I hasten to add that I am very careful with my reading books, spines are always intact but when it comes to music volumes, how can you prevent the spine being broken if you need to finger a few things on the piano and the blessed score is refusing to stay open on the music stand?).

Red Cover of The Byrd Edition Volume 14

Now Volume 14 is entitled Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets (1611), his final publication, and the music is perfect for a consort of voices and only a few of the pieces suitable for full choir. So for one reason or another it had stayed on the shelf. But along come the Covid years; in case you have forgotten that was 2020 and 2021 and a lean time for everyone none more so than for anyone in the arts. I can honestly say there wasn’t much to celebrate. But I needed to do something and I needed to record something with The Sixteen but what? We were having to cope with singing 2 metres (at least) apart and 3 metres between rows. A nightmare. But one morning I looked up at my Arsenal red Byrd volumes and noticed the one with an unbroken spine.

Well it’s a revelation – how could I have ignored it for so many years? Bizarrely enough for such a well known composer of the English renaissance only a handful of the works are widely known. Yes we all know a couple of the madrigals, This sweet and merry month of May with its paean to Queen Elizabeth I and Come woeful Orpheus with its extraordinarily vivid word painting mirroring chromatic notes, sour sharps and uncouth flats (a nightmare to keep in tune) but hardly any of the others are performed, certainly not regularly. Of the sacred pieces we often programme at Christmas This day Christ was born, what a fun piece, so joyful and rhythmically vibrant and always a test for the singers at the first reading which reminds me, maybe I should use it as a sight-reading test when auditioning new singers. But what struck me was the way the volume goes from three single voices through four to five, adding all the time, a viol consort as well at times and then we culminate in six voices with viols. The Sixteen is full of exceptional singers and the thought of Alex Kidgell, Katy Hill and Mark Dobell treating us to an Aesop fable, In winter cold, was too good an opportunity to miss, no matter if they had to sing 2 metres apart - they know each other well and telepathy is an amazing art.

And so I decided that we should record the complete volume, re-unite with our good friends Fretwork and spend a delightful week revelling in Byrd’s final publication, sometimes just single voices, sometimes two to a part, sometimes with viols and always loving every moment. And my goodness me does Byrd test our skills. One minute low soprano writing, next minute the sopranos are at the other end of their register and the tenor is tackling top c’s but when that tenor is Jeremy Budd, I say… put it up a further tone! Byrd treats us to all sorts of wonderful effects. The opening five pieces are in three parts but later in the collection we are treated to a motet in two sections Sing we merrily unto God our strength where once again Byrd is inventive in his distribution of voices, three high sopranos with alto and tenor all skating around in shimmering vocal tracery in the first section before resounding in vibrant triads to simulate the blowing of trumpets in the second section. But it’s not just a collection of music it also gives us insights into Byrd’s life. I love reading Kerry McCarthy’s account in her excellent book – as Byrd lovers I’ve no doubt you have all read it but if perchance you haven’t it’s a must.

Cover of William Byrd Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets 1611 by Harry Christophers

And so I think it was meant to be that we recorded this incredible publication. I recall sometime during the past couple of years that William Byrd was BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week. In the final episode, the wonderful Donald Macleod (who can’t but sit up and listen when he is speaking? His rich voice is pure burgundy and his words just brim with life over the air) only briefly mentioned this final collection and I’m pretty certain that there was no musical offering. Odd but little did I know that not only is our new recording the first complete rendition of the collection but that apparently 14 works on it have never been recorded before….until now.

Harry Christophers


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