A beautiful Byrd mass, sung with deep poignancy in a forbidden 16th-century priest hole

28 November 2018, 17:08 | Updated: 4 July 2023, 12:30

William Byrd sung in a historic hiding place
William Byrd sung in a historic hiding place. Picture: Eboracum Baroque

By Kyle Macdonald

A beautiful moment of music and a powerful piece of history – this is an ‘Agnus Dei’ by William Byrd, performed in a historic hiding place.

A group of singers climbed into a forbidden 16th-century priest hole to sing a piece of music that has resonance and poignancy in English history.

It happened at the National Trust house, Oxburgh which was built in 1482 by the Catholic Bedingfeld family.

During the 16th century, England was officially Protestant, and practising Catholics were prosecuted – even put to death. A priest hole was a small room, usually accessed by secret doors and corridors. They were used to hide the outlawed Catholic priests and avoid detection by Protestant authorities.

While singing a series of concerts at the house in 2019, the singers of Eboracum Baroque decided to combine music and history in a very unique way.

The quartet went into the house’s priest hole to sing the music of William Byrd, a English Renaissance composer who died 400 years ago. Watch below.

Byrd was a committed Catholic, and his music often reflected the hardship, fear and strain felt by those practising his faith at the time. In his compositions, he set Latin words in a mood of private devotion, with writing that was often full of anguished harmonies and long, yearning lines.

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The Agnus Dei is the final moment of a Catholic Mass setting, asking for mercy and peace. Many singers will tell you that this setting of it for four voices by Byrd is one of the epitomes of choral music.

This performance was the very sort of secret devotional music-making that would have been strictly banned in Byrd’s time. Yet out of this hiding place which would have been filled with fear and peril centuries ago, the beautiful music still resonates.