William Byrd: Ave Maria

screenshot0040_Byrd_Ave_Maria_Stile_AnticoI’ve picked a slightly unusual performance of William Byrd’s "Ave Maria" for this posting. This motet is from the first volume of Byrd’s two-volume compilation of music for the feasts of the Church published in 1605. By 1605 Byrd had retired to the relative peace and seclusion of Stondon Massey in Essex where he was part of a group of recusants centred around the Petre family, they, and other English Catholics were the target audience for his music. The Gradualia from which this motet is taken is a cycle of motets meant to be used by the recusant community and issued in two volumes in 1605 and 1607 and republished together in 1610. Taken together the two volumes cover the entire liturgical year.  Given what else went on in 1605 in English politics we’re lucky that the book’s author survived let alone any copies of his book.

It seems likely that Byrd wrote most of this music during the 1590s. Byrd had forsaken the city and its dangers for the peace and relative safety of Stondon Massey in Essex. There he was part of the community of Catholics gathered around Sir John Petre  at Ingatestone Hall. The law flat out forbade the celebration of Catholic rites, yet with a certain amount of discretion, those rites could be and were celebrated throughout the land. I plan on exploring more of Byrds music and it’s clear that much of what he wrote was explicitly Catholic and written for surrpeptitious performance by small forces. Byrd certainly wrote some very dark music but despite the increasingly difficult circumstances of English Catholics the music in the Gradualia isn’t at all dark – it’s positively sprightly. I wonder if perhaps Byrd was stimulated by the fact that he was part of a community of fellow Catholics and reveling in the chance to hear the music he wrote Ad maiorem Dei gloriam performed as he intended?

The Performances

I want to discuss two performances of this motet. The first is by “Stile Antico” the second is by the Laudantes Consort directed by Guy Janssens. I’ll deal with the Laudantes consort performance first. It’s a good performance and is to be found on the the 12 CD set “The Golden Age of the European Polyphony, 1350-1650”. This performance is clear and crisp and well worth listening to. It was my favourite until the “Stile Antico” performance was released. If I have a criticism it’s that they take it at one hell of a clip, which now that I’ve got used to “Stile Antico”‘ performance I find a little disconcerting.

Now for the performance by Stile Antico, I said at the outset that this performance is slightly unusual and so it is. Much early choral music is performed in a very formal somewhat cold and bloodless manner. That’s certainly not the case in this recording by "Stile Antico" the British ensemble who perform it (as they perform all their work) without a conductor.

Working without a conductor, the members of Stile Antico rehearse and perform as chamber musicians, each contributing artistically to the musical result. Their performances have repeatedly been praised for their vitality and commitment, expressive lucidity and imaginative response to text.

Source: Stile Antico – About Us

The motet is to be found on Stile Antico’s Puer Natus Est: Tudor Music For Advent and Christmas (don’t let the fact that the disc is of performances of music for Advent and Christmas put you off) the singing is goreous. Stile antico employ a chamber music style of singing with a fluid line that’s very well matched to the music and to the acoustic. The result is lively, warm and full of life.  I think you’ll enjoy it. The lyrics should you need them are below the videos. Enjoy :-).


William Byrd: Ave Maria – Stile Antico

William Byrd: Ave Maria – Laudantes Consort

Ave Maria: Latin textEnglish Translation:
Ave Maria, gratia plena,

Dominus tecum;

benedicta tu in mulieribus,

et benedictus fructus ventris tui.


Hail Mary, full of grace,

the Lord is with thee;

blessed art thou among women,

and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.


2 thoughts on “William Byrd: Ave Maria

  1. The title of a recent event, as part of a William Byrd Festival at St Peter & St Paul Church, Stondon Massey’, was ‘William Byrd: Loyal Heart or Traitor’. He lived in dangerous times. He was ‘loyal heart’ to Queen Elizabrth I and King James I, but ‘traitor’ in his disobedience in the practice of his Catholic faith. Read more on the Festival website.

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