In concert – Spitalfields Music Festival: Byrd at the Tower of London with the Odyssean Ensemble

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Odyssean Ensemble / Colm Carey, Christian Wilson (organ); Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London, London, 2 June 2016

Byrd The Great Service (1590s)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The Spitalfields Music Summer Festival celebrates 40 years this summer – and what better way to begin by sending its audience to the Tower?

That was Arcana’s fate on a surprisingly cold and grey evening, though thankfully our time with the ravens was not at Her Majesty’s displeasure. Rather it was a wholly enlightening evening with the music of William Byrd, one-time composer for a rather older Queen Elizabeth than the one we now have.

The focus of attention was Byrd’s Great Service, composed tactically in installments in the 1590s, ensuring Byrd kept his role – which had been the subject of some controversy. Byrd was fundamentally a catholic, and so was composing outside of his comfort zone – and many of his contemporaries knew that and wanted him punished. The Queen ensured this did not happen – and 420 years on we had cause to be grateful as his polyphony illuminated the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula.

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Interior, the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, the Tower of London

Providing the voices were the Odyssean Ensemble conducted by Colm Carey, their ten members singing one to a part, and bringing great clarity to Byrd’s text settings in a rewarding acoustic. Their harmonies were crystal clear, the pronunciation likewise – and the melodies were carefully woven into a beautiful tapestry.

The music of the Great Service itself was sensibly complemented by three shorter numbers on a reduced scale, and at the centre of the concert we were given a helpful reminder from organist Christian Wilson of the composer’s genius at the keyboard with the Fantasy in A minor. Byrd was, we were informed, given a telling off for over-elaboration in his writing – but here the decorations were almost mischievously florid.

As a perfectly chosen encore Carey introduced O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth – an anthem based on Psalm 21 that asks to ‘give her a long life, for ever and ever’. In the year of our current monarch’s 90th birthday, it was the most appropriate way to end to a fascinating and rewarding lesson in musical history, enhanced further by the escorted walk to the Tower gate afterwards.

 

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