Old Scores and New Readings by John F. Runciman

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Many years ago, in the essay which is set second in this collection,
I wrote (speaking of the early English composers) that "at length the
first great wave of music culminated in the works of Tallis and
Byrde ... Byrde is infinitely greater than Tallis, and seems worthy
indeed to stand beside Palestrina." Generally one modifies one's
opinions as one grows older; very often it is necessary to reverse
them. This one on Byrde I adhere to: indeed I am nearly proud of
having uttered it so long ago. I had then never heard the Mass in D
minor. But in the latter part of 1899 Mr. R.R. Terry, the organist of
Downside Abbey, and one of Byrde's latest editors, invited me to the
opening of St. Benedict's Church, Ealing, where the Mass in D minor
was given; and there I heard one of the most splendid pieces of music
in the world adequately rendered under very difficult conditions. I
use the phrase advisedly--"one of the most splendid pieces of music in
the world." When the New Zealander twenty centuries hence reckons up
the European masters of music, he will place Byrde not very far down
on the list of the greatest; and he will esteem Byrde's Mass one of
the very finest ever written. Byrde himself has rested peacefully in
his grave for over three hundred years. One or two casual critics have
appreciated him. Fetis, I believe, called him "the English
Palestrina"; but I do not recall whether he meant that Byrde was as
great as Palestrina or merely great amongst the English--whether a
"lord amongst wits," or simply "a wit amongst lords." For the most
part he has been left comfortably alone, and held to be--like his
mighty successor Purcell--one of the forerunners of the "great English
school of church composers." To have prepared the way for Jackson in
F--that has been thought his best claim to remembrance. The notion is
as absurd as would be the notion (if anyone were foolish enough to
advance it) that Palestrina is mainly to be remembered as having
prepared the way for Perosi. Byrde prepared the way for Purcell, it is
true; but even that exceeding glory pales before the greater glory of

the D minor Mass is as noble and complete an achievement as the St.
Matthew Passion or the "Messiah," the Choral symphony of Beethoven or
the G minor symphony of Mozart, "Tristan" or the "Nibelung's Ring." It
is splendidly planned; it is perfectly beautiful; and from the first
page to the last it is charged with a grave, sweet, lovely emotion.

The reason why Byrde has not until lately won the homage he deserves
is simply this: that the musical doctors who have hitherto judged him
have judged him in the light of the eighteenth-century contrapuntal
music, and have applied to him in all seriousness Artemus Ward's joke
about Chaucer--"he couldn't spell." The plain harmonic progressions
of the later men could be understood by the doctors: they could not
understand the freer style of harmony which prevailed before the
strict school came into existence. Artemus Ward, taking up Chaucer,
professed amazement to find spelling that would not be tolerated in an
elementary school; the learned doctors, taking up Byrde, found he had
disregarded all the rules--rules, be it remembered, formulated after
Byrde's time, just as our modern rules of spelling were made after
Chaucer's time; and as Artemus Ward jocularly condemned Chaucer, and
showed his wit in the joke, so the doctors seriously condemned Byrde,
and showed their stupidity in their unconscious joke. They could
understand one side of Tallis. His motet in forty parts, for instance:
they knew the difficulties of writing such a thing, and they could see
the ingenuity he showed in his various ways of getting round the
difficulties. They could not see the really fine points of the
forty-part motet: the broad scheme of the whole thing, and the almost
Handelian way of massing the various choirs so as to heap climax on
climax until a perfectly satisfying finish was reached. Still, there
was something for them to see in Tallis; whereas in Byrde there was
nothing for them to see that they had eyes to see, or to hear that
they had ears to hear. They could see that he either wrote consecutive
fifths and octaves, or dodged them in a way opposed to all the rules,
that he wrote false relations with the most outrageous recklessness,
that his melodies were irregular and not measured out by the bar; but
they could not feel, could not be expected to feel, the marvellous
beauty of the results he got by his dodges, the marvellous
expressiveness of his music. These old doctors may be forgiven, and,
being long dead, they care very little whether they are forgiven or
not. But the modern men who parrot-like echo their verdicts cannot and
should not be forgiven. We know now that the stiff contrapuntal school
marked a stage in development of music which it was necessary that
music should go through. The modern men who care nothing for
rules--for instance Wagner and Tschaikowsky--could not have come
immediately after Byrde; even Beethoven could not have come
immediately after Byrde and Sweelinck and Palestrina, all of whom
thought nothing of the rules that had not been definitely stated in
their time. Before Beethoven--and after Beethoven, Wagner and all the
moderns--could come, music had to go through the stiff scientific
stage; a hundred thousand things that had been done instinctively by
the early men had to be reduced to rule; a science as well as an art
of music had to be built up. It was built up, and in the process of
building up noble works of art were achieved. After it was built up
and men had got, so to say, a grip of music and no longer merely
groped, Beethoven and Wagner went back to the freedom and
indifference to rule of the first composers; and the mere fact of
their having done so should show us that the rules were nothing in
themselves, nothing, that is, save temporary guide-posts or landmarks
which the contrapuntal men set up for their own private use while they
were exploring the unknown fields of music. We should know, though
many of us do not, that it is simply stupid to pass adverse judgment
on the early composers who did not use, and because they did not use,
these guide-posts, which had not then been set up, though one by one
they were being set up. For a very short time the rules of
counterpoint were looked upon as eternal and immutable. During that
period the early men were human-naturally looked upon as barbarians.
But that period is long past. We know the laws of counterpoint to be
not eternal, not immutable; but on the contrary to have been
short-lived convention that is now altogether disregarded. So it is
time to look at the early music through our own, and not through the
eighteenth-century doctors' eyes; and when we do that we find the
early music to be as beautiful as any ever written, as expressive, and
quite as well constructed. There are, as I have said, people who
to-day prefer Mr. Jackson in F and his friends to Byrde. What, I
wonder, would be said if a literary man preferred, say, some
eighteenth-century poetaster to Chaucer because the poetaster in his
verse observed rules which Chaucer never dreamed of, because, to drag
in Artemus Ward once again, the poetaster's spelling conformed more
nearly to ours than Chaucer's!

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 5th Jun 2020, 21:59