To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd, Westminster Cathedral Choir will perform the entirety of his Gradualia, settings of music for Mass, during choral services at Westminster Cathedral.
William Byrd (c.1540 – 4th July 1623) was an English composer of the late Renaissance period, and considered to be one of the finest and most significant composers of his time and of his nation. He was a Catholic during the religious turbulence of the late 1500s when Catholicism was forbidden and many prominent Catholics were martyred for their beliefs.
The two collections of settings of the Mass Proper that make up the Gradualia were written for clandestine use by English Catholics. It would have been performed privately during Masses across the country, and so it is highly symbolic that they will be performed as part of the same services for which they were composed, in the very public setting of Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of the Roman Catholic community of England and Wales, in the 400th year of William Byrd’s death.
The music was intended to help Catholics mark the different seasons of the Church’s calendar, and all 109 pieces will be performed at the appropriate time of the year. The celebration begins on Sunday 18th December 2022 and will run until Monday 25th December 2023.
His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said: “William Byrd’s settings for the Mass were first heard in secret, in private chapels and back rooms, attended by Catholics who risked their livelihoods and by priests who risked their lives. Yet despite the private nature of these first performances, his music is full of life and emotion and communicates the vitality of a living faith, standing strong against the difficulties of the time. Every note, every phrase, is a prayer. Our prayer today stands in continuity with his.”
Fr Sławomir Witoń, Administrator of Westminster Cathedral, said: “For centuries William Byrd’s compositions of music for the Mass Ordinary and the Mass Proper could only be performed in secret Masses in private homes across the country. It is, therefore, hugely significant that Westminster Cathedral Choir is able to mark the 400th Anniversary of his death with performances during services in the Mother Church of Roman Catholics in England and Wales.”
Highlights include a special Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral at 5.30pm on Tuesday 4th July 2023: the very date of Byrd’s death in 1623; and 17 Masses with complete sets of music by Byrd, performed together in the same service at the Cathedral for the very first time. All services are free to attend.
Full details and a brochure with all the dates of the celebration can be found at westminstercathedral.org.uk/music/byrd400
Westminster Cathedral Choir is one of the world’s great choirs. Since its foundation in 1903 it has occupied a unique and enviable position at the forefront of English church music, and remains the only Catholic Cathedral Choir in the world to sing daily Mass and Vespers. In 1998 the choir was awarded the Gramophone Awards for ‘Best Choral Recording of the Year’ and ‘Record of the Year’. The choir has a history of commissioning and performing new music, giving first performances of pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, James MacMillan, John Tavener and Judith Bingham. Since 2021, the choir has been directed by Simon Johnson.