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Nicholas Mulroy: The Fifth Element/Seeing Like a Child

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Born in Liverpool, tenor Nicholas Mulroy was a chorister at the city’s Metropolitan Cathedral before studying Modern Languages at Cambridge and voice at the RAM. He has since been in constant demand both in the UK and further afield in a wide range of concert, recital and opera engagements. He has sung at many of the world’s great concert halls: the Sydney Opera House, Boston Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, Berlin Philharmonie and the Salzburg Festival.

b/w headshot of nicholas mulroy tenor in white shirt smiling

Like many who will contribute to this stream of Byrd fandom, I first met his music as a child. We sang a few of his motets, his evening services, and of course his great masses when I was a treble at Liverpool Met in the late ‘80s (yes, the *19*80s, thanks). Strangely, the piece I remember most vividly from that time is not one of the great, searing masterpieces (though we sang a few of those too) but his 'Beati Mundo Corde'. A short, sunlit slice of polyphony, this is a response to the Sermon on the Mount - Blest are the Pure in Heart - and its initial rising fifth ascends in hope towards heaven. In contrast, the setting of “Pacifici” (the cheese makers, sorry, peacemakers) is a simple, gently descending line which sounds like a benediction returning from above. Compared to some other, more famous works - especially the end of the monumental 'Ad Dominum cum Tribularer', whose words have a similar ring ("while they cried for war, I was a peacemaker") - we might feel Beati Mundo Corde is slight or light. But a more convincing theory is that it’s the work of a composer so utterly at ease in his craft that he is equally capable of concealing as well as revealing his slight of hand. The way this motet emerges is an unfolding of uncanny naturalness, which perhaps is what drew me to it as a child, and brings to mind Picasso’s immodest but instructive words about the challenge of achieving simplicity: “when I was fourteen I could already draw like Raphael. But it took me a lifetime to learn to paint like a child.”

This puts me in mind, perhaps counterintuitively given the maturity of its context, of his lament on the death of his friend and teacher, Thomas Tallis. 'Ye Sacred Muses' is part of a long line of great pieces dedicated to a recent, deeply felt loss: Josquin’s Déploration for Ockeghem, Andrea Gabrieli’s tender ode to Adrian Willaert; we might also add Howells’ Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing a searing lament for John F Kennedy. This window into private grief can offer us a telling glimpse of a composer’s self, and is all the more moving, in Byrd’s case, for its simplicity and concision, qualities which feel like a touching nod to Tallis himself.

A rising plea to the Muses (the same rising fifth that begins Beati Mundo Corde, but in a minor key), is balanced by a falling entreaty that they “come down from Crystal Heav’n”. The anonymous poem ends with the shudderingly direct “Tallis is Dead, and Music dies”. It's hard to write about this - whereof we cannot speak etc - but I always find it one of the most moving songs to sing. Written as it is by a composer for whom musical composition seemed to flow as naturally as air, it closes abruptly at the point at which neither words nor even music can express or contain what is felt. This is music distilled to its essence - you couldn’t change a note without compromising its integrity, its message or its genius. Fittingly for its subject matter and dedicatee, it’s music about music, too: what it can and can’t express, and its childlike clarity in the face of the most profound loss is just one of the things that makes it so unforgettable.


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