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Robert Quinney's Byrd Great, Part II of II

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

Robert Quinney is Organist of New College, Oxford. In addition to the daily direction of New College’s world-famous choir, he is also a Tutorial Fellow of the college and an Associate Professor at the University Faculty of Music. He maintains a parallel career as a solo organist, and he is a prolific recording artist: his discs of organ music by J.S. Bach, Elgar, Dupré, Wagner and Brahms – and several CDs with the Choir of Westminster Abbey and The Sixteen – are widely acclaimed.


In my last piece, about Ut re mi fa sol la for keyboard, I drew attention to Byrd’s apparent delight in employing a composerly sleight-of-hand; in playing with the listener’s comprehension of the music. Here I write about another remarkable example of Byrd’s benevolent trickery, one that has an irresistible effect on me each time I hear it.


The circumstances surrounding the composition, or assembly, of the ‘Great’ Service will probably never be clear. I like the idea that this – a complete set of music for the morning and evening services of the reformed English Church – was Byrd’s fond farewell to his colleagues in the Chapel Royal, sent back to them in the mid-1590s, after his departure for Stondon Massey in Essex. He chose not to publish, or for some reason was not able to publish this amazing music; perhaps he was still smarting from his and Tallis’s disastrous foray into publishing two decades earlier with their Cantiones Sacrae, or knew that very few choirs would have been able to muster singers sufficiently expert to manage it. In places it requires the sort of vocal dexterity we might associate with Monteverdi madrigals; yet today the evening part, at least, is a staple of quite a few ecclesiastical choirs. I’ve played the organ on two recordings and in many services, and directed several performances of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in Evensong at New College – including a live broadcast a few days after this essay appears, on Wednesday 8 February 2023.


Several former choristers of New College (where I’ve been Organist since 2014) and Westminster Abbey (where I was Sub-Organist from 2004 to 2013) will know exactly the moment I’ve chosen. It has an extraordinary effect on me, one I’ve never been able to hide: the hairs on my neck stand to attention and my tear ducts leap into action. ‘Is this the one that makes you cry, sir?’ said one Abbey chorister, who later reappeared as an Academical Clerk at New College, perhaps because he wanted to see me reduced to a puddle all over again.


It happens in the Nunc dimittis, the second of two canticles sung at Evensong, and the peroration of the entire Service. In the closing Gloria Patri Byrd deploys what Andrew Johnstone calls ‘fragments of perpetual canon’; a canon that will just keep on endlessly circling around the end of the doxology: ‘and ever shall be…’. Here we glimpse the eternal and universal, and without a trace of the factionalism we might wish to see in a piece for the reformed, Established Church by our favourite recusant. But before that there’s a significant scriptural moment to be addressed; the meeting of the prophet Simeon with the Christ-child, and the old man’s declaration that this baby is to be ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel’. This passage in Luke’s Gospel, which falls a little while after the Annunciation and Nativity accounts, is perhaps the moment when the reality of the Incarnation is most fully recognised by an actual human actor. Simeon gets it, and having seen salvation revealed, incarnate in this vulnerable human form, is content to die. By what means does Byrd set this scene to music?


We’re in a ‘verse’ section: not the whole ensemble (and, in a choral performance, soloists rather than everyone) but a rich texture nevertheless. It’s scored for six singers in total: two sitting equally at the top of the texture (Medius 1 and 2), plus a voice roughly an octave below (Tenor); between Medius and Tenor, a Contratenor, and finally two Basses at the bottom. The upper two voices are the ones that catch the ear, singing high in their ranges, evoking both the tiny child in Simeon’s arms and the idea of ‘glory’ – hope fulfilled, expectation realised. Here is ‘the glory of thy people Israel’ conjured by the intertwining voices of two children. The section is quite long, occupying 17 breves, with particular attention given to the second half of the phrase.


There are quite a few excellent recordings of the Great Service, but perhaps none quite so carefully conceived with an ear for rhetoric – not to mention the finest consort singers currently at work – as the recent performance by the Odyssean Ensemble, directed by Colm Carey. You can find it here:




Here we are, standing with Simeon in the temple. The stage is being set for a cadence, a musical chapter-end, and Byrd is very good at those (think, for example, of the elegiac way in which the rich are ‘sent empty away’ in the Great Service Magnificat – you almost feel sorry for them). The bass moves up to a D, preparing for arrival on G (a ‘perfect cadence’ in modern terms). The upper voices have already sung ‘of thy people Israel’, but there’s time left over; so, just as the two basses coincide on that cadence-preparing D, Medius 2 enters, also on D – its highest note – with that final word, ‘Israel’. Now comes the sleight-of-hand. Medius 2 is, almost immediately, joined on that note, on that ‘I’ vowel, by Medius 1, but by stealth; we don’t realise they are both singing the same note until Medius 2 relinquishes it, descending a scale. Medius 1 is now revealed, gloriously alone on the top note.

Sheet music excerpt from Byrd’s Great

It only lasts two seconds – barely a moment – but it is truly a moment of revelation, and of fulfilment, completion, recognition, heaven in ordinary, man well drest: for me that moment is everything.


It is also provides a launchpad: for the Gloria Patri, the summing-up of the whole service and the final public musical act of the day (though we might fit in a fantasia or two before bed). It’s a musical ski jump that sends singer and listener soaring over the in-breath that always begins the closing section of a ‘Great’ Service canticle. (Conductors take note: you can’t slow down on a ski jump without serious injury; the cadence before the Gloria is no place for a rallentando.) This, for me, is one of the great sequences in the whole of the Western musical tradition – and I have a slightly embarrassing emotional response to show for it, every single time.


5.ii.23


Listen to New College Choir's live broadcast of the Canticles from Byrd's Great Service on Radio 3, Wednesday 8 Feb 2023 at 16:00


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