Byrd and Elgar revisited by Bliss

During 2016 there are two scheduled concert performances in England of all or most of Byrd’s Great Service, 1 a work that has under-achieved five complete recordings in the compact disc (CD) era. 2 Because of its magnitude, being in up to ten parts with seven constituent movements, most requiring soloists and antiphonal singing besides full choir, the work can seldom be sung liturgically at the three Anglican services – Mattins, Holy Communion or Evensong – for which Byrd composed movements, or canticles. The sheer scale and the demands of the music have also militated against frequent recordings, broadcasts or secular performances. This renders the fact of two performances within one calendar year all the more welcome. Similarly welcome as all five CD recordings have been, its status as the finest setting of the complete Anglican Service ever composed demands more such attention. Recently some recognition from long before the CD era has come to light.

Byrd has been associated with Elgar to a significant extent in a small number of articles. 3 Recently, and entirely fortuitously, I came across an interesting reference in Elgarian literature to another circumstance in which a piece by Byrd – this time the Great Service  – impinged upon one by Elgar – for the third time, his The Dream of Gerontius. This circumstance has never been mentioned in the literature of early music, so it is worth recounting it briefly from a Byrdian perspective as part of the narrative concerning reception of Byrd’s music before the age of authenticity and historically informed performance, and before the release of any recording of even a complete canticle from the Great Service. 4

The shenanigans surrounding the now famous and feted first complete recording of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius  have been dramatically recounted by the late Carl Newton. 5 During the Second World War in Britain, it was felt that Germany was successfully exploiting the music of the likes of Beethoven as cultural propaganda, so Walter Legge, the record producer at HMV with friends in high places, proposed that the United Kingdom should retaliate. The inevitable committee of the great and good was put together. Many and various pieces were put forward, from the rather vague suggestion of “madrigals” to modern works such as Rubbra’s third symphony. In the end, not by a process of selection but rather as a result of one or two proactive individuals taking the initiative, The Dream of Gerontius  was chosen to spearhead the project. It might seem surprising that the opponent of any work by Elgar was Arthur Bliss, once seen as a wild young man of English music after the First World War, but subsequently as a protégé of Elgar himself. By now Bliss was firmly installed within the British musical establishment, having been Director of Music at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) from 1941 until 1944 (and later to become the Master of the Queen’s Musick, 1953-75). It was shortly after resigning from this post at the BBC in March 1944 that he made known his hostility to Gerontius  stating a preference for Dowland’s lute music, Delius’s Song of the High Hills  and Byrd’s Great Service. The rest is history and can be read in Newton’s stirring account. Although Bliss is not thought of as one who had a particular penchant for early English music, notwithstanding the Meditations on a Theme by John Blow, regarded by many as his finest work, he had some documented experience with the music of Byrd, having arranged three dances (pavan, galliard and jig) by the composer as part of his incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s As you like it  at Stratford upon Avon in 1919. 6 Unfortunately the score does not survive, but it is possible that therein lay the seeds of his enlightened proposal for a complete recording of Byrd’s Anglican magnum opus; perhaps he had attended one of the three initial performances by the Newcastle Bach Choir of the work in London at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster during November 1924 7 after it had been re-discovered by E.H. Fellowes in June 1919, who observed that “this was a work entirely unknown to modern musicians”. 8 Nevertheless, depending upon which perspective is being used, it was known as late or as recently as 1849, when it was listed, including all its constituent canticles, by Joseph Warren in a memoir of Byrd, who knew at least its accompaniment from the Batten Organ Book which he owned at the time. 9

Richard Turbet

Acknowledgment: Ellen Sykes, Mitchell Library, Glasgow.

  1. The Odyssean Ensemble, Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London, June 2; Floreat Sonus, Church of St Mary, South Creake, Norfolk, August 15.
  2. The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (EMI CDC 477712, originally released on LP 1987); The Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM 011, originally released on LP 1987; omits Kyrie); The Choir of Westminster Abbey, Hyperion CDA67533, 2005); Musica Contexta (Chandos CHAN 0789, 2012; uniquely includes passage from Te Deum missing in all sources but one); The Cardinall’s Musick (Hyperion CDA67937, 2012).
  3. Porte, John F. “Byrd and Elgar”. The Chesterian  7 (1925): 13-16; Turbet, Richard. “Byrd, Birmingham and Elgar.” Elgar Society journal  6 (1989): 7-8; ibid. “Bits of Byrd at Birmingham, 1900”. Early Music Review  118 (2007): 9. Porte considers each composer as being the greatest in the England of their time; my articles look at circumstances surrounding the performance of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices  during the same festival which witnessed the premiere of Gerontius.
  4. The Gloria of the Nunc dimittis was released on a 78rpm disc in 1923; two American recordings of the complete work were released on LP in 1954 and 1987; see A discography of Tudor church music, compiled and introduced by Timothy Day. London: British Library, 1989, p. 217.
  5. Newton, Carl. “The nightmare of Gerontius: the story behind a famous recording”. In The best of me: a Gerontius centenary companion, edited by Geoffrey Hodgkins. Rickmansworth: Elgar Editions, 1999, corr. repr. 2000, pp. 306-27, especially 313.
  6. Foreman, Lewis. Arthur Bliss: catalogue of the complete works. Sevenoaks: Novello, 1980, p. 65.
  7. Whittaker, W. Gillies. “Byrd’s Great Service”. Musical quarterly  27 (1941): 474-90, especially 477-78. F[lood], G[rattan]. “A note on Byrd’s ‘Great Service’.” Music Bulletin  6 (1924): 372. Flood’s observation that “the crowded church … might have been filled nightly for at least a week”, alongside his unreservedly appreciative opinion of the first two performances under Whittaker, provoke a consideration of the possibility that a fashionable musician such as Bliss might have been one of those who attended.
  8. Fellowes, Edmund H. Memoirs of an amateur musician. London: Methuen, 1946, p. 130.
  9. Warren, Joseph. “William Byrd”. In Boyce, William. Cathedral music. New ed. London: Cocks, 1849, pp. 18-24, especially p. 23.