Rediscovered in the library of Durham Cathedral in 1922, the exact circumstances of the composition of what was immediately dubbed William Byrd's "Great Service" remain unknown. The sheer scale of the setting, including matins, communion and evensong, and the forces it requires – two five-part choirs – indicate that it was certainly written for use on state occasions at the Chapel Royal where Byrd, a Roman Catholic in the service of an Anglican monarch, was employed from 1572; the complete service is known to have been in existence by 1606 and was probably composed between 1597 and 1604. Most modern performances have either been given a cappella or with organ accompaniment, but in his notes to this recording, Musica Contexta's director Simon Ravens argues that Byrd might well have envisaged performances with much larger forces. That's the starting point for this reconstruction, in which sackbuts and cornetts as well as an organ accompany and reinforce the choirs; instrumental versions of motets from Byrd's 1607 Gradualia serve as preludes to each liturgy, earlier instrumental pieces are interpolated into the sequences and anthems composed for other occasions end the first and third parts. It's a fascinating piece of musical conjecture, even if the textures sometimes seem a little too overripe.
Byrd: The Great Service – review
Devine/English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble/Musica Contexta/Ravens