Byrd: Mass for Five Voices


Byrd: Mass for Five Voices


Les Arts Florissants

Musical Direction and tenor



Miriam ALLAN, soprano
Mélodie RUVIO, contralto
Sean CLAYTON, tenor
Edward GRINT, bass

"William Byrd was one of the preferred composers of Elizabeth 1st, who had ascended the throne in 1558 on the death of her catholic sister, Mary. On becoming Queen she re-established the protestant faith in England, following her father, Henry VIII’s schism with the established church. William Byrd maintained however his strongly held catholic faith until his death despite his closeness both to the court and the monarchy. As Elizabeth’s long reign matured she was obliged to become less tolerant of the relative religious plurality which England had enjoyed and William Byrd retired from court in 1593 to Stondon Massey, within the lands of a wealthy aristocrat, Sir John Petre. Petre and his family were catholic recusants and Byrd wrote his three masses, respectively for 3, 4 and 5 voices for the use of this family. Byrd took the risk to publish his masses, but without the traditional dedication to a patron – to whom could he dedicate a music that had become illegal, without putting at risk the very person he aimed to honour?

The particular context of these compositions begs the question, who might have performed such music in such circumstances? Certainly not a large choir of boys and men as might be found in the collegiate colleges of Oxford or Cambridge, or the Cathedral cities of York or London. The latin mass had long since been banned in such establishments. Such private, and indeed secret acts of worship would have been given not in a chapel, the use of which would have been too obvious, but rather in a large room within the house, and sung by very few voices. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the upper lines having been sung by boys’ unbroken voices as would otherwise have been the tradition, since the training necessary would have been impossible. Most likely the music was sung by a single voice per part including women in a manner far divorced from our idealised image of the great English choral tradition.

In this reconstruction we aim to express not only the beauty of the music of one of England’s greatest composers, but equally to communicate something of the atmosphere of a mass celebrated in secret, where religious conviction came with great personal risk and for some, mortal danger."

Paul Agnew


Previous dates

Season 2023-24

Ambronay / France

  • Saturday, September 23 2023, 2.30pm, Festival d'Ambronay

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