William Byrd: back on top after 400 years

LONDON Wed Oct 6, 2010 4:43am EDT

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A recording of Renaissance composer William Byrd's setting of the text "Infelix Ego" by the book-burning 15th-century monk Savonarola, who in turn was burned on a cross, seems an unlikely must-have CD of the year.

But in the hands of the British vocal group The Cardinall's Musick, this, too, has come to pass.

At the British music magazine Gramophone's annual ceremony last week, the group with the oddly spelled name, founded in 1989, got two awards for Infelix Ego (Unhappy am I): best early music recording and best recording of the year.

Despite the CD's name, conductor Andrew Carwood couldn't have been happier.

"I think we've got more than any other early music group," Carwood told Reuters in a telephone interview, before he knew that his group also was going to get the coveted best recording award -- making it five Gramophone awards in all since 1995.

"It's great for the singers to get that sort of recognition ... and in terms of the wider world people will think this group must be quite good, so let's get them."

But 16th-century vocal music? In Latin? And a series of 13 CDs of it, all of music composed by William Byrd (1539/40-1623)?

For Carwood, who launched his Byrd project in 1997, it's a no-brainer. Byrd was the most important English composer of his age, a musical talent to rival Shakespeare in the literary realm.

He lived long enough to incorporate a wide range of styles in his music -- and he knew how to stay alive, while sticking discreetly to his Catholic faith, during the reign of the Tudors, who brought in the Protestant Reformation.

"I think that what you get with Byrd is this astonishing life experience which is not quite shared by any of the other musicians to the same extent," Carwood said.

"As he goes through life, under Queen Elizabeth I, he has to put up with her -- for various reasons -- persecuting the Catholic community. And that persecution might be in being fined for not going to the Anglican services or, in the case of priests, it can be torture and death for daring to celebrate mass.

"So he's a hidden man. He has to hide his faith away."

Here's what else Carwood had to say about Byrd's appeal for people who may not be drawn to organized religion, but find his music deeply spiritual, what he thinks goes into the making of a musical genius and ... how did they come up with that funny name?

Q: The popularity of your recordings and concerts, including a packed Christmas event every year, is pretty convincing proof that someone out there is interested in good singing and Byrd's music, but what draws them in?

A: "I think it's the element of spirituality and I'm not necessarily talking about religion ... but there's a huge spiritual dimension to our lives which I think we lose a bit in this age. You can see this in the rise of New Age spirituality, crystals and such things, people searching for a spiritual angle.

"And I think that especially the 16th-century composers, not just the English ones, for many people encapsulate a spirituality which is not necessarily to do with going to a church service but allows them to experience a degree of spirituality which they can't get anywhere else. I think the piece that shows that most clearly is the (Gregorio) Allegri 'Miserere' with its famous top 'c' going on over and over again. People love to hear that piece because I think it gives them a glimpse into a world which we find hard to discover these days."

Q: So it's clear you rank Byrd, much of whose music was little recorded until you tackled the back catalog, among the greats. But what makes a Mozart, a Beethoven or a Byrd?

A: "I think life experience is very important but there's got to be a genius there. Where does the music in Mozart come from? It's probably not from his father. The genes are from his father but the ability to write 'Marriage of Figaro' is from his own genius, though some people say it's a God-given gift that just flowed through him.

"For Byrd, he is the product of his age and he is obviously a very fine musician... I think Byrd is absolutely at the top of the pile, so genius combined with life experience has coupled to produce that extraordinary music."

Q: Why the funny spelling of the name?

A: "A colleague ... was researching in the Christ Church (Oxford) archive and Christ Church College was originally called Cardinal College, set up by Cardinal Wolsey who was most interested, as far as I can see, in politics and eating and enjoying himself. So he built the kitchens before he built the church, which he never actually finished, and the colleague found records which said 'Payments for the Cardinall's Musick'.

"That's where it came from and we thought that's actually quite a good name. It's the original spelling, as in the archival documents from about the 1520s. And it fits us well because a lot of our music making is English 16th-century music. It gives people a very clear indication of where we are in the timeline."

(The Cardinall's Musick's award-winning recording of Byrd's "Infelix Ego" is available on Hyperion CDA 67779)

(Writing by Michael Roddy, Editing by Steve Addison)

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