Sunday Playlist: William Byrd: Three English Anthems – The Cambridge Singers

byrd_signature_01_smallEven though he was acknowledged during his lifetime as the greatest English composer of his age and is acknowledged as such today only a small proportion of his music is well known and regularly performed. (This sad situation is just as true in the recording industry – Andrew Carwood and ‘The Cardinall’s Musick’ pioneering work is just that, pioneering work). Byrd wrote over fifty English anthems, they’re characterised by a tremendous range of musical inventiveness and technical ability, and religious intensity. For today’s playlist I’ve picked three of these anthems. I’ve picked picked them because while each of them is very beautiful none of them are recorded or performed very often and each has some characteristic that sets it apart from the rest of Byrd’s output. The three anthems are:

  • Sing joyfully (Psalm 81, vv. 1–4)
  • Turn our captivity (Psalm 126, vv. 5–7)
  • Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles (Psalm 117, vv. 1–2)


Sing joyfully

Strangely enough Byrd never published this anthem himself and yet it was wildly popular during his lifetime. Perhaps he felt the competition would be too intense —  printing was an expensive business in those days and ‘Sing Joyfully’ can be found in approximately 100 early seventeenth-century manuscript and printed sources.  It’s a sprightly and marvellously celebratory anthem that showcases Byrd’s ability to breathe musical life into his text:

Sing joyfully unto God our strength. Sing loud unto the God of Jacob. Take the song and bring

forth the timbrel, the pleasant harp and the viol. Blow the trumpet in the new moon, even in

the time appointed, and at our feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, and a law of the God

of Jacob.  (Psalm 81, vv. 1–4)

Play: Sing Joyfully:[audio:|titles=CS0507 – Tk-1 – William-Byrd – Sing-joyfully]

Turn Our Captivity

‘Turn Our Captivity’ which is a setting of Psalm 126, verses 5–7, was one of the Psalms published by Byrd in 1611 in "Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets". The 1611 collection was mostly intended for home use and stylistically ‘Turn Our Captivity’ closely resembles a madrigal. Byrd set it for 6 voices and made heavy use of contrasts between high and low voices. It’s unusual in that it’s text:

Turn our captivity, O Lord, as a brook in the south. They that sow in tears, shall reap in joyfulness.

Going they went and wept, casting their seeds; but coming, they shall come with jollity,

carrying their sheaves with them.  (Psalm 126, vv. 5–7)

would have been read – at least by his fellow Catholics, as refering to the alienation the feeling of being in ‘captivity’ or of living in a kind of internal exile in their own country that Byrd and his fellow recusants experienced. While many of Byrd’s Latin compositions have this theme – "Quomodo Cantabimus" is perhaps the best known example it’s very rare in his English works.

Play: Turn Our Captivity:[audio:|titles=CS0507 – Tk-2 – William-Byrd – Turn-our-captivity]


Praise Our Lord, All Ye Gentiles

The scale of ‘Praise Our Lord, All Ye Gentiles’ a setting of the first two verses of Psalm 117 is what sets its apart. Like ‘Turn Our Captivity’ Byrd published it in "Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets" but its scale is such that it’s clearly not intended for singing in a private setting. John Rutter speculates that perhaps Byrd wrote it for the Chapel Royal and that rather than let it be forgotten he includedd it in "Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets", which seems reasonable.

Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles, praise him, all ye people: Because his mercy is confirmed upon us.

And his truth remaineth for ever. Amen.

(Psalm 117, vv. 1–2)

Play: Praise Our Lord, All Ye Gentiles :[audio:|titles=CS0507 – Tk-3 – Willliam-Byrd – Praise-the-Lord-all-ye-Gentiles]


Playlist Play All Three:

  1. Sing joyfully (Psalm 81, vv. 1–4)
  2. Turn our captivity (Psalm 126, vv. 5–7)
  3. Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles (Psalm 117, vv. 1–2)