William Byrd – Mass for five voices
The Mass for Four Voices is a choral Mass setting by the English composer William Byrd (c.1540–1623). It was written around 1592-3 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and is one of three settings of the Mass Ordinary which he published in London in the early 1590s.
It consists of the text of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei) set for a four-part choir. The works is a noted example of English Renaissance music from the Tudor period.
Following the religious conflict of the English Reformation, settings of the Catholic Mass were highly sensitive documents and might well have resulted in the arrest of anyone caught with them. It is probably for this reason that Byrd chose not to publish the Masses as a set but individually in single bifolia which were easy to conceal. To make them more difficult to trace, the partbooks are undated, with no title-pages or prefatory material, and the printer Thomas East is not named. The project was almost certainly suggested (and financed) by Byrd’s circle of friends among the nobility and gentry in the Elizabethan Catholic community. Together with the two sets of Gradualia (1605, 1607) the Masses represent a grandiose scheme to provide a comprehensive repertory of music for the Catholic liturgy, to be sung at clandestine Mass celebrations in recusant households. These would have included Thorndon Hall and Ingatestone Hall, the two Essex country houses owned by Byrd’s main patron in the later stages of his career, Sir John Petre (later Baron Petre of Writtle) who was a close neighbour of Byrd.