Secret Byrd: An Immersive Staged Mass

Secret Byrd
An Immersive Staged Mass on the 400th anniversary of William Byrd

The Gesualdo Six with Fretwork
Bill Barclay, Concert Theatre Works
St Martin-in-the-Fields crypt, 27 January 2023

In celebration of the 400th anniversary of William Byrd, The Gesualdo Six combined with the viol consort Fretwork for a theatrical recreation of a secret Catholic Mass with Byrd’s Mass for 5 Voices performed, as he intended, for a secret act of private domestic worship. It was directed by Bill Barclay, produced by Concert Theatre Works, and supported by The Continuo Foundation. The premiere performances were held in the splendidly restored crypt of London’s St Martin in the Fields.

The audience was led in groups down into the candle-lit crypt by what turned out to be the singers, who urged us to be very quiet as this was a secret gathering. Premium ticket holders (who were also offered soup and bread towards the end of the performance) could use the seats arranged around the substantial stone pillars and at the edge of the space, while others could roam freely. While we gathered, Fretwork played Byrd’s Fantasies in 3 parts antiphonally from two groups of three viol players, who then joined for the Fantasy a 5 and Browning (The Leaves be Green). The performance itself started with Byrd’s Ash Wednesday motet Memento homo (‘Remember, O Man, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt return’), the six singers of The Gesualdo Six processing around the space. This piece was published in the Cantiones Sacrae of 1575, a joint publication with Byrd’s childhood teacher Thomas Tallis.

The rest of the main part of the programme was centred around a round table sumptuously decked with the paraphernalia of a meal and the very authentic-looking vocal parts. With viol consort interludes from Fretwork, The Gesualdo Six (now reduced to five) sang the Mass for 5 Voices. Their director, Owain Park, took the role of the priest, laying out the utensils for the Mass and going through the various associated rituals.

The Mass was beautifully sung in what must have been rather tricky circumstances, with many of the wandering audience breathing down their period-clad necks and standing in the way as they moved around the table. The concluding Agnus Dei is a musical highlight as the voices increase from three to five over the three sections. As it concluded, there was a surprise interruption which I leave you to experience when you go to see the touring show.

For me, one of the most emotive musical moments, particularly considering the opening piece from the joint Tallis/Byrd publication, was the distant solo singing (I think by countertenor Guy James) of Ye Sacred Muses, Byrd’s elegy on the death of Thomas Tallis with the tear-jerking final line: ‘Tallis is dead, and Music dies’. Another setting of Agnus Dei (from the Mass for 4 voices) was sung as the Communion was reenacted, along with soup and bread for premium ticket holders. Homeopathic quantities of wine had been available to all at the start of the event. Restored to their usual six singers, the final choral pieces were the extraordinary Infelix ego, one of Byrd’s finest vocal pieces reflecting the anguish of a soul in torment, and the Easter antiphon Haec dies.

Of course, the secret mass gatherings that Byrd was composing for occurred in very different environments than the expansive crypt of a large London church. But the atmosphere was imaginatively reconstructed, the only issue being those in the premium seats being unable to see everything through the standing throng. In my case, a brief stand up to see something in the far corner led to a women grabbing my seat, and then having the gall to hand me my programme as I returned, no doubt assuming I would gather my belongings and leave! It was no surprise that she was the same woman who later disturbed the singers, and many nearby, by loudly whispering to somebody during one of their processions. Some people don’t deserve music and theatre of this quality.

In a separate space off the crypt, a series of wall hangings gave the director’s note on ‘What is Belief’ alongside several others put together by the event’s musicologist/researcher Lily Vadaneaux reflecting present-day persecution, Byrd, The Mass for 5 Voices, Catholic Recusancy, and Byrd’s instrumental pieces. Following the four performances in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, it will tour the USA and Britain. A video introduction to Secret Byrd can be viewed here. If they haven’t already filmed this, they should for when the initial tour is over. In the meantime, do try to see it live.

Middle photo ABW, others by Mark Allan.