Ross W. Duffin is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus and Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music Emeritus at Case Western Reserve University, where he led the program in historical performance practice for four decades. Known for his work in early modern English song, including Shakespeare, as well as historical tuning, he was also founding Artistic Director of Quire Cleveland.
I met my English grandfather once, when I was six months old. My mother told me a lot about him, however, and he seems to have had an outsized influence on my life, considering that brief early encounter. A photographer by day, during the 1930s he was alto soloist for Harold Darke at St Michael’s Cornhill, and for Herbert Murrill at St Thomas Regent Street (destroyed in the Blitz), and my mother used to go hear him whenever she could. Thousands of miles away in Canada, when I was young, she started buying LPs of music she loved, and the first one I remember—probably influenced by hearing her father sing—was David Willcocks leading King’s College Choir in Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, the Great Service, and Ave verum corpus (1963). That made an indelible impression, and those works remain among my favorites, instilling a love for Byrd’s music that endures to this day.
After some decades of singing Byrd at every opportunity (but seemingly never enough), I had a chance to perform and record the mass and the motet in 2016, when I was directing Quire Cleveland; but I found a new favorite at that time as well: the not-so-well known Haec dicit Dominus, from Byrd’s 1591 Cantiones Sacrae. A lamentation for low voices, it seemed to me an absolute wonder of sonority and grace. You can view our live performance here (including Byrd biographer Kerry McCarthy among the altos), but I was further thrilled when Stephen Malinowski chose that recording for treatment at his Music Animation Machine. Hearing the gorgeous sonorities and watching the counterpoint unfold graphically, the vocal lines intertwining, the motives trading from one part to another—even previewing what was coming next—seemed to me an ideal way to experience Byrd’s compositional process and “see” the music in a visually beautiful way. It also struck me as an innovative point of access for listeners who don’t read music, enabling them to “follow the score.”
That experience had me musing about my trajectory, from having a grandfather who sang Byrd nearly a century ago, to having one of my Byrd recordings processed by computer to create a visual “edition” of the composer’s work. The technology has transformed during that time, but the music, already old, has remained as beautiful as ever and able to survive any new thing.