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In this Forum piece, Simon Ravens (Musica Contexta director) explains the compromises made in the musical forces used in the recording of William Byrd's The Great Service, and how the approach is attempting to find something the composer would recognise.


There is, inevitably, a delay between a musicological ‘discovery’ and its acceptance into the world of performance. Even so, it’s remarkable how startling some critics have found the performing forces in our recording of the Byrd Great.


As a theory, the use of cornetts, sackbuts and organ to accompany English Tudor church choirs is, frankly, old hat. As long ago as 1967 Peter le Hurray, in his book Music and the Reformation in England had listed numerous contemporary accounts of these instruments accompanying English church choirs. Andrew Parrott amplified this list in his article ‘Grett and solompne singing’ (Early Music, 1978). And Craig Monson’s 1982 edition of the Great Service made the point that, of all the individual works in the Chapel’s repertory at the time, this was an obvious candidate for the addition of wind instruments.


Yet decades on, some critics have sounded distinctly queasy about the practical results of this theory. It’s not that they don’t seem to like the sound – even the three most lukewarm of our reviewers variously describe the sound and ‘splendid’, ‘rich and glorious’, or ‘grand’. But there is that feeling that they’re enjoying forbidden fruit. The critic of the Guardian actually uses the term ‘overripe’, whilst another writes about the ‘intrusion of instruments… into the pristine world of Renaissance’. This last comment is, I think, confused: the Renaissance musical world was often lavish and colourful – it is only the way modernist musicians have presented it to us (unaccompanied and coolly ethereal) which is ‘pristine’.


I hope it won’t make these surfeited critics retch if I say that the scoring I settled on was, on musicological grounds, relatively frugal. On the historical evidence it would have been quite possible to justify the addition to our ensemble of recorders, flutes, reed instruments, viols and – that most intoxicating of all sonorities mentioned by Tudor listeners – ‘other instruments’. My own hope is that other groups don’t just replicate our scoring in the future, but experiment with the bolder colours on this palette. One critic (and I think this was meant as a compliment) said that the sound we produced was ‘Iberian’, which is a comment worth unpacking. I would argue that there is a good deal more evidence from the Renaissance of lavish instrumental participation in English than Iberian polyphony. What can’t be denied is that in our own time Iberian early music groups have included instruments in their sacred music more than we English groups have in ours. Still, if the critic who liked our ‘Iberian’ sound simply meant that we sounded a bit like a Jordi Savall recording, I will settle for that. Indeed, I suspect that the best hope for those wanting to hear Tudor sacred music in its most vibrant colours may lie with continental groups and not our own. 


There are other radical moves a next wave of performers could make. One concerns the acoustic for the performance – a vital ingredient in the sonority. The Chapel Royal’s regular venue in the old Whitehall Palace was miniscule – just slightly larger than a tennis court – and decked out with resonance-sapping tapestries and damask cloth. If we had been aiming to recreate this specific performing context, we would have chosen to record in somewhere more resembling a carpet showroom than a stone church.


As for the size of the choir, although it is inconceivable that many more musicians than our 25 could have been shoe-horned into the Whitehall Chapel, on the occasions when the Chapel Royal followed the monarch to other, larger venues, it is possible that more singers were called on: after all, the Chapel Royal comprised some 32 gentlemen and 12 boys, although it needs to be stressed that this total of 44 members represents a pool from which singers were taken and not, as it would in a church choir today, the number of the regular performing body. In the other churches known to have had the Great Service in their repertories (Worcester, Durham and York) in the post-Reformation period the choirs were staffed by around ten men and ten boys. The obvious paradox here is that in vast buildings the Great Service would have probably been performed by smaller numbers than in the intimacy of the regular royal chapel.


Our own choice of acoustic was largely determined by the organ we used. Our ideal instrument would have been the Wetheringsett organ – the jewel in the crown of the Early English Organ Project. However, not only is that instrument now housed in a central London church which we considered too noisy to use as a recording venue, but it would have created a pitch problem for us. The Wetheringsett is pitched just over a semitone above modern pitch, which is where the research by Dominic Gwynn, the organ’s creator, has cautiously located an average for Tudor church pitch.


Here follows a (necessary) digression on pitch. The fallacy of Tudor church pitch having been a minor-third above our own was dismantled back in the 1980s: in my 1994 article ‘A sweet shrill voice’ in Early Music I outlined both the creation and debunking of the myth. In that article I also tried to establish that the Tudor counter-tenor was not a falsettist, but what we would think of as a tenor. Part of my argument was based on changing human physiology: although the following is a gross over-simplification of that argument, I should probably summarize it here: on average, Tudor men were considerably shorter than the modern men, and since it has been proven that shorter men (again, on average) have higher voices than tall men, a musical line which we would consider uncomfortably high for modern tenors (in the Byrd Great Service ascending to somewhere between a high b flat and a b) would have presented no great problems for the equivalent Tudor singers. So, our problem with the Wetheringsett organ was not its pitch as such, but that we would have needed to replace our tenors with falsettists (or some of the Aka pygmy singers). The introduction of falsettists, of course, is the standard way modern performers have performed late Tudor music (albeit at even higher, unhistorical pitches), but to my mind it seriously distorts the sound-world of the composers if we make this compromise. Either way, a compromise seems inevitable. The one I prefer is to perform the music at a slightly lower pitch than Byrd’s, but with a vocal scoring I think he would have recognised. 


This brings us back to the choice of organ. What we were looking for was an instrument as similar as possible to the Wetheringsett, but at modern pitch. Dominic Gwynn recommended another instrument of his – one based on a 17th century positive organ from Lucca. This magnificent organ is housed in the church of St John, Upper Norwood. Thankfully, this is a trouble-free recording location. It does, however, possess a grander acoustic than Byrd would have known in the Chapel Royal in Whitehall.


In so many ways, the choices I made regarding the Byrd recording were compromises. Artistically, compromise tends to be a dirty word, but in this case I don’t view it like that at all. Increasingly I believe that Renaissance composers deliberately conceived and disseminated their music in such a way as to encourage diverse approaches. Inevitably, the fixed co-ordinates of a cd appear to represent a musical destination rather than an approach. I make no claim that Byrd himself, as a performing musician, ever came to precisely the same musical destination as we did on our cd. However, if (and it is a big, non-rhetorical ‘if’) Byrd would think our approach to be valid, I would be happy.


Simon Ravens





















Wetheringsett organ



The Gwynn organ we used in St John's Upper Norwood