William Byrd

Mass for 3 Voices (ATB)

    Description by Brian Robins

    The three unaccompanied masses Byrd composed during the 1590s are masterpieces of late Elizabethan polyphony. The Mass for Three Voices (1593-1594), like its companions for four and five voices, is a setting of the sections of the Ordinary: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Byrd wrote the work for use by Catholics during a period when celebration of the mass was strictly forbidden. Still, Catholics (or recusants, as they were then known in England), continued to perform their central act of worship under cover of strict secrecy. Byrd's masses were therefore composed for practical use and conceived expressly for small-scale, furtive performances. After moving from London to Essex in 1593, Byrd himself may have been involved in such acts of worship at the nearby home of Sir John Petre, a notable member of the Catholic community and a friend and patron of the composer.

    The Mass for Three Voices is the briefest of Byrd's three masses, almost certainly because the opportunities for passing thematic material from one voice to another are restricted by such a small number of parts. There is no evidence that Byrd had a particular vocal disposition in mind, and the mass works as well for soprano, alto, and tenor as it does for alto, tenor, and bass, or even tenor, baritone, and bass. Such flexibility is obviously logical, given the conditions under which the work was originally intended to be sung. In each of his masses, Byrd was careful not to make the vocal writing too complex; the scoring in the present work is mainly syllabic, with little complex melismatic writing. Still, within such apparent austerity, Byrd produces many wonderfully expressive moments, with key passages in the text highlighted to great effect.

    Parts/Movements

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

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Erato 0190295974916
    2015 Decca 4788918
    2015 DG Deutsche Grammophon 002894795229
    2014 Hyperion CDA 68038
    2014 Harmonia Mundi HMA 1957223
    2011 Regis Records RRC1336
    2011 Decca
    2010 Newton Classics 8802020
    2007 Decca
    2007 Argo 4301642
    2007 Gimell 208
    2002 Harmonia Mundi 907223
    2001 Gimell 345
    2000 ASV 206
    1999 Gimell 454945
    1998 Nimbus 1762
    1997 Gimell 454895
    1997 London 452170
    1996 Centaur Records CRC2471
    1992 Nimbus 5302
    1992 Harmonia Mundi 190211