Death of Classical 2023 Review: Secret Byrd

Bill Barclay’s Immersive Meditation on William Byrd’s Legacy

By Jennifer Pyron

Death of Classical presented Bill Barclay’s “Secret Byrd” at Green-Wood Cemetery’s Catacombs on June 9, 2023, featuring NY’s Abendmusik String Ensemble and Cathedra Ensemble. The concert celebrated the prolific Renaissance composer William Byrd.  The immersive performance, marking the 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd (d.1623), invited audience members to experience early music as a shared way to overcome persecution and injustice in modern times.

Byrd was one of England’s most well-known early music composers. Grounded in sacred and traditional forms that allowed him to communicate messages of hope and transcendence during the Catholic Reformation in the 1500s, the composer’s three masses for small ensembles specifically signify an act of creative resistance against persecution. His music was made to be shared in intimate gatherings, such as homes and private ceremonies, which were forbidden during the Reformation. The theme of Barclay’s “Secret Byrd” revealed more about the challenges of overcoming afflictions surrounding personal beliefs during this time while remembering Byrd as the creative activist he was.

Byrd’s Legacy

At the main door to Green-Wood Cemetery’s Catacombs, two scrolls informed the audience about religious persecution. Along with these was a note from Barclay about “What is belief?”

Byrd’s legacy and endeavors became the key to what unfolded within the space. Entering the Catacombs, a woman dressed in medieval costume greeted audience members, eager to welcome everyone to the gathering. All members of the Cathedra Ensemble wore such garb, and they invited their guests to partake actively in the surrounding atmosphere, which included a well-dressed table that stood at the center, filled with candles, medieval hors d’oeuvres, sheet music, and dried flowers. Some members of the audience stepped into the crypt chambers that were open for audience members to read scrolls full of information about Byrd and his life. One could partake in a quick “confession” or simply find a spot along the candlelit walls to relax and enjoy the already-playing early music string band.

Meanwhile, a soft glow illuminated the delicate parts of the Catacombs, creating an air of magic and anticipation as the string ensemble played Fantasia in parts: No.1, No.2, and No.3; Fantasia No.3 in C major for 3-part Consort; and Fantasy a 5: Browning. Members of the ensemble included Patricia Ann Neely (treble viol), Roasamund Morley (treble viol), Lawrence Lipnik (tenor viol), Adam Young (tenor viol), Arnie Tanimoto (bass viol), and John Mark Rozendaal (bass viol).

Byrd’s fantasias set the tone. These musical compositions, rooted in improvisation, felt natural in the intimate space. Barclay’s decision to have the ensemble begin with these playful pieces made the environment feel very present. Had the works been heavier than fantasias at the start, the event would have felt more like a staged performance. Instead, it was a very thoughtful gathering to be shared, and the whole evening walked the fine line between immersive experience and staged performance the entire time. There was plenty of room to breathe and really sink into the space. There was much to enjoy by observing others interact with the center table’s Catholic mass setting, with the singers engaging in a private mass ceremony.

Illuminating Voices

The Cathedra Ensemble’s voices were spectacular. Mass for 5 Voices: I. Kyrie & II. Gloria, Fantasia a 6, T 391, and III. Credo highlighted the string and vocal ensemble’s masterful precision and care in interpreting Byrd’s music. Together, they evoked a nostalgic calm from deep within. Glancing at audience members, many were seen holding one another. Their eyes were relaxed, and smiles graced their faces. Some were even swaying in time with the music. There was a purposeful connectivity that engaged listeners with the music and brought to the surface its ability to dissolve barriers universally. “Secret Byrd” invited listeners to share common ground in this way, and Byrd’s compositions were made for this exact purpose. This was a coming together to discover more about life as a community. Beyond the Catholic connotations and traditional forms, one felt alive and connected to the space while listening.

As the evening continued and the ensembles lulled listeners into a liminal space of anticipating ceremonies, there was a loud knock on the Catacomb’s metal door. We were all startled, and fear filled the room. Barclay turned towards the door, and another singer followed him. “I will go,” said Barclay as he exited and did not return for a while. The music slowly started up again. Pavan a 6, Galliard a 6, Infelix ego (a6), and “Haec Dies” concluded the night. All throughout the final pieces, listeners were left with their own thoughts and beliefs. This stark message lifted the magical veil, and we were back in the reality of our world today.

“I fervently believe that once we stop trying to convince people they’re wrong, we can move to the next stage of our evolution – working together to protect a world where we each get to choose our fate,” stated Barclay in the program notes.



NewsReviewsStage Reviews