WILLIAM BYRDE ... HIS MASS
Many years ago, in the essay which is set second in this collection, I wrote (speaking of the early English composers) that “at length the first great wave of music culminated in the works of Tallis and Byrde ... Byrde is infinitely greater than Tallis, and seems worthy indeed to stand beside Palestrina.” Generally one modifies one’s opinions as one grows older; very often it is necessary to reverse them. This one on Byrde I adhere to: indeed I am nearly proud of having uttered it so long ago. I had then never heard the Mass in D minor. But in the latter part of 1899 Mr. R.R. Terry, the organist of Downside Abbey, and one of Byrde’s latest editors, invited me to the opening of St. Benedict’s Church, Ealing, where the Mass in D minor was given; and there I heard one of the most splendid pieces of music in the world adequately rendered under very difficult conditions. I use the phrase advisedly—“one of the most splendid pieces of music in the world.” When the New Zealander twenty centuries hence reckons up the European masters of music, he will place Byrde not very far down on the list of the greatest; and he will esteem Byrde’s Mass one of the very finest ever written. Byrde himself has rested peacefully in his grave for over three hundred years. One or two casual critics have appreciated him. Fetis, I believe, called him “the English Palestrina”; but I do not recall whether he meant that Byrde was as great as Palestrina or merely great amongst the English—whether a “lord amongst wits,” or simply “a wit amongst lords.” For the most part he has been left comfortably alone, and held to be—like his mighty successor Purcell—one of the forerunners of the “great English school of church composers.” To have prepared the way for Jackson in F—that has been thought his best claim to remembrance. The notion is as absurd as would be the notion (if anyone were foolish enough to advance it) that Palestrina is mainly to be remembered as having prepared the way for Perosi. Byrde prepared the way for Purcell, it is true; but even that exceeding glory pales before the greater glory of having written the Cantiones Sacrae and the D minor Mass. In its way the D minor Mass is as noble and complete an achievement as the St. Matthew Passion or the “Messiah,” the Choral symphony of Beethoven or the G minor symphony of Mozart, “Tristan” or the “Nibelung’s Ring.” It is splendidly planned; it is perfectly beautiful; and from the first page to the last it is charged with a grave, sweet, lovely emotion.
The reason why Byrde has not until lately won the homage he deserves is simply this: that the musical doctors who have hitherto judged him have judged him in the light of the eighteenth-century contrapuntal music, and have applied to him in all seriousness Artemus Ward’s joke about Chaucer—“he couldn’t spell.” The plain harmonic progressions of the later men could be understood