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


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.


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.