Dr Richard Rastall is Emeritus Professor of Historical Musicology at the University of Leeds, formerly the Editorial Director of Boethius Press, and the editor of the complete works of Martin Peerson and John Milton the Elder. He plays tenor in the Manton Consort of Viols, which he founded in 1993, and is a former choir director and harpsichordist.
Most of us probably come to a great composer's music in one of two ways: through listening to it (as I came to Carl Nielsen's music through his wonderful fourth symphony), or by performing it. In the summer of 1962, working towards my final undergraduate year and having chosen Henry VIII's songbook as a special subject, I spent the short summer vacation term in my college: and one sunny afternoon two friends and I, sitting over an after-lunch coffee by the open window of my first-floor room, sang all through Byrd's three-part mass. This was a great experience for all of us and, we discovered at the end, apparently also for a group of tourists standing in the Third Court below our window. (One can imagine their comments on finding real Cambridge undergraduates singing real old music!)
That performance of the three-part mass was my real introduction to Byrd's music. The amazing invention, and the way in which Byrd rings the changes of texture and musical material, is all truly extraordinary. I realised then, too, that although the work is so brief Byrd had thought about its structure and planned the whole work very carefully. In a plainsong mass the Kyrie is ninefold: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison, three times each. Byrd's three-part Kyrie lasts for only 32 beats - too short for each voice to sing each text three times - and he solved the problem in a different way. Each voice sings each text only once (with an extra "Kyrie" in the middle voice): but because there are three voices the words of each section are indeed sung three times. So the ninefold structure is maintained, after a fashion: vertically rather than horizontally, telescoped in time. Liturgical propriety satisfied!
Later on I realised that such practical and conceptual matters were an important part of Byrd's thinking, although it never got in the way of his producing beautiful music that is a joy to sing or play. I still remember the excitement of discovering a particular moment in the Credo of the five-part mass. Byrd has three voices singing the "Qui cum Patre et Filio" section ("Who with the Father and the Son"), ending in "Qui locutus est per prophetas" ("Who spake by the prophets") in imitative polyphony. Suddenly, a rich five-part chord begins a homophonic section for "Et unam sanctam Catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam" ("And [I believe] in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church"). The solid unity of movement here immediately strikes one as a clear musical metaphor, stating Byrd's belief in the one true Church. It is an extraordinary moment in which Byrd unequivocally nails his colours to the mast. What an amazing man he was!
Later, when I played and taught consort-music on viols, I came to love Byrd's consort-music too, both by listening to Fretwork's recording of it and by playing it - which brings me back to my first statement. Listening or performing, assessing Byrd's music is a no-brainer, really: he was, quite simply, the greatest English composer of his generation. Many, I think, would remove the word "English" from that statement; others certainly think him the greatest English composer of all time.