Music, Uncategorized, Vocal music

Rare Byrd with Seicento Baroque

A preview by Betsy Schwarm

In this case, ‘Rare Byrd’ is not an unexpected avian visitor.  Rather, Seicento Baroque Ensemble – drawing its name from the 17th century – will be spotlighting less familiar works by English composer William Byrd (1543 – 1623).  Sacred verse anthems, madrigals and secular consort songs, the latter for voices and violas da gamba, will be performed in Denver, Boulder, and Longmont November 17, 18, and 19.

Evanne Browne
Photo credit: Richard Saxon

Byrd’s mass settings for three, four, or five voices are perennial favorites of choruses.  However, Seicento artistic director Evanne Browne wanted to look further afield in the composer’s voluminous catalog.  As she observes, “The challenge with a program of Byrd works is not finding pieces you love but eliminating some 460 works to get a program’s worth.”  She opted to focus upon “those infrequently performed works written for voices and viols and deserving to come to life in concert.”  

That’s “viol,” not “violin,” “viola,” or “violoncello.”  Viols, also called violas da gamba were quite popular in late Renaissance England and France.  Held upright between the legs (hence ‘gamba’) while playing, violas da gamba are cousins of standard orchestral strings and co-existed with them for a time.  However, they filled a different place in the musical community.  Instrumentalist Zoe Weiss, who’ll be joining Seicento for the concerts, says violins were “used by dance bands.  Viols, on the other hand, were cultivated by the aristocracy and considered very noble instruments which made them even appropriate for women to play.”

Zoe Weiss

Not only are violas da gamba held differently while playing, they also have a feature not found in standard orchestral string instruments:  frets, which, like those on guitars, locate specific pitches in specific places.  However, as Weiss points out, “Unlike guitar frets which are metal inlayed into the neck of the instrument, viol frets are just old strings tied onto the neck and are movable/tunable.”  That feature gives viols what Weiss describes as “many more sonic colors on my palette to paint with:  gloriously resonant chords!”  Get viols involved in a performance, especially combined with singers, and remarkable sonic tapestries can result.

Sarah Biber Photo credit: Ashleigh Wurzbach

Of course, the composer needs to know what to do with those expressive tools, but Byrd was one of the best.  Sarah Biber, another of the instrumentalists engaged for Seicento’s concerts, says “it opens up a huge body of repertoire that cellists don’t play.”  Moreover, there is the advantage that comes from Byrd’s habit of writing polyphonically.  Multiple melodic phrases overlap with one another simultaneously, leaving no one in the position of only providing harmony to someone else’s tune.  Every performer is fully engaged, and as Biber adds, “there’s not a bad seat in the house!”

Amongst the fifteen works on the program, artistic director Evanne Browne singles out a handful as representative of the range of Byrd’s musical vision.  One is the verse anthem for Easter, Christ Rising Again.  Browne admires the way the solo voice lines are echoed by the chorus, with “interspersed refrains throughout the piece… a quick and joyous interchange of ‘to life, to life, to life, to life’.”  Such a celebratory fashion of honoring the message of Easter! 

On a humbler theme, and proving that not all Byrd’s music was sacred, there is Who made thee, Hob?  It is not a reflection upon Creation, but rather who has made Hob, a man of the countryside, exchange farm work for love.  His colleague asserts that Hob is aiming “too high” in his affections.  Apparently, social standing has long played a role in romance! 

William Byrd

That Byrd was composing over 400 years ago does not make the themes of his music remote from us today.  Consider his verse anthem O God that guides the cheerful sun and let the word “cheerful” be a hint.  It is a New Year’s Day carol wishing for a better new year:  as Browne remarks, “something we can all hope for.”  Throughout, there is an increasing sense of motion and rapture, in part from vocal lines, but also as the chorus takes up what had formerly been lines for the vocal soloists.  It seems “new creatures” and “new life” can encourage hope. A serene sequence of amens brings Byrd’s anthem to a close.

There will be three performances of Seicento Baroque Ensemble’s Rare Byrd program:

  • Denver:  Friday, Nov. 17, 7:30 p.m. – St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1600 Grant St, 80203.
  • Boulder:  Saturday, Nov. 18, 7:30 p.m. – Mountain View United Methodist Church, 355 Ponca Place, 80303.
  • Longmont:  Sunday, Nov. 19, 3 p.m. – United Church of Christ Longmont, 1500 9th St., 80501.

In Boulder and Longmont, parking is free.  Prepaid parking is available for $4 across the street from St. Paul’s in downtown Denver. Advance ticket purchase is available here:

On the website, use the promo code “thescen310” at check-out to save 10%.  A small administrative fee is added for online purchases.  Tickets will also be available at the door.

For those unable to attend in person, the Denver performance will be simulcast live at 7:30 p.m. MT on Friday, Nov. 17. Online purchases for the simulcast are available from a link on the Seicento website cited above.

Generally, late Renaissance music in the Denver metro area has been represented by performances of a cappella masses and madrigals.  Voices with violas da gamba, such as Seicento will be offering, are beginning to earn their own spotlight. Artistic director Evanne Browne remarks, “It’s thrilling to see the strength of the growing early music movement in our state…. The music is rich and calming – something we can all enjoy these days.”

Seicento Baroque Ensemble Photo credit: Richard Saxon

When it comes to letting music restore one’s faith in the world, Seicento’s Rare Byrd programs may be just what the doctor ordered!

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