William Byrd

Mass for 4 voices (SATB)

    Description by Brian Robins

    The Mass for Four Voices (1592-1593) was likely the first of the three great unaccompanied polyphonic mass settings Byrd composed in the 1590s. All three masses are settings of the Ordinary: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The scoring of the Mass for Four Voices is often thought to consist of the usual soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, but the closeness of the alto and tenor parts has led some authorities to believe that alto, tenor, baritone, and bass achieves a more satisfactory balance.

    Like its fellows, this mass was composed for liturgical use by Byrd's fellow Catholics -- a dangerous proposition, since celebration of the Catholic mass was forbidden in Elizabethan England under threat of severe penalties. The central act of the liturgy was therefore performed by Catholics, or recusants as they were termed, under conditions of strict secrecy. These conditions are reflected in Byrd's three settings, which entirely eschew the kind of exuberance and florid writing encountered in earlier Tudor settings of the mass. Instead, Byrd's contrapuntal writing is largely syllabic, with the lines treated to clean, clear imitative counterpoint. Byrd compensates for such implications of austerity with a superbly expressive setting that often points up key words or sections of the text in a manner rarely encountered in settings of the timeless and unchanging words of the Ordinary. Examples include the soaring lines at "et ascendit" (and ascended into Heaven), or the sublime beauty of the Agnus Dei, in which Byrd gradually builds the number of voices and complexity of the counterpoint to achieve a searing climax at the words "dona nobis pacem" (grant us Thy peace). Perhaps he was making a political plea on behalf of all persecuted Catholics, who could emerge into the light only with the brightness of the work's very last sonority.


    1. Kyrie
    2. Gloria
    3. Credo
    4. Sanctus
    5. Agnus Dei

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2015 Decca 4788918
    2014 Hyperion CDA 68038
    2014 Linn Records BKD 487
    2014 Harmonia Mundi HMA 1957223
    2013 BIS BIS 2037
    2011 Regis Records RRC1336
    2011 Decca
    2010 Newton Classics 8802020
    2008 Él 161
    2008 Signum UK 120
    2007 Argo 4301642
    2007 Decca
    2007 Gimell 208
    2006 Nimbus 5287
    2005 Signum UK 061
    2005 Avie AV2054
    2003 CRD Records CRD3499
    2002 Virgin 562013
    2002 Griffin 4011
    2002 Harmonia Mundi 907223
    2001 Gimell 345
    2001 Orchard 001
    2001 ECM New Series 4391722
    2000 Warner Classics
    2000 EMI Music Distribution 74002
    2000 ASV 206
    1999 Gimell 454945
    1999 Arion 58438
    1999 ECM New Series 8118215122
    1998 Nimbus 1762
    1997 Gimell 454895
    1997 London 452170
    1996 Collins Records 14872
    1996 Centaur Records CRC2471
    1994 Naxos 550574
    1994 ASV 6132
    1993 Arion 68003
    1992 Harmonia Mundi 190211
    EMI Music Distribution 62015
    Supraphon 3328
    Gimell 592
    BBC Music 992
    Gimell 207
    BBC Music Magazine 70