Byrd, In Paradisum

So I’m going to tell you a little story about me… and a man you’ll never meet.

As I mentioned last winter, one of my volunteer jobs involves serving on the planning committee for Portland’s William Byrd Festival, an annual celebration of the music of (you guessed it) sixteenth/seventeenth-century composer William Byrd.

While the uninitiated may not recognize his name, William Byrd was something of legend, both in his own time and in modern musicological circles. A pupil of Thomas Tallis, Byrd managed to create a name for himself as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal under Queen Elizabeth, while at the same time remaining a staunchly unapologetic Catholic and prolific composer of Catholic liturgical music during a time when being a Catholic often meant persecution, fines, imprisonment, and even death. Somehow, Byrd managed to navigate the treacherous waters of recusancy while creating some of the most notable works of early English music – a feat that now makes him revered in both Catholic and Anglican circles, alike.

If you looked in the dictionary under "Sixteenth Century English Badasses", you'd probably see this guy's picture.

If you looked in the dictionary under “Sixteenth Century English Badasses”, you’d probably see this guy’s picture.

375 years after his death, Byrd’s legacy became resurgent – in Portland, of all places – when a American Catholic and an Englishman joined forces to host a Festival highlighting his works. In 1998, Dean Applegate, the founder and then-director of local Portland choir Cantores in Eccelsia, entered into a collaboration with Dr. Richard Marlow, who was at the time Director of Music at Trinity College, Cambridge, and already a well-known figure in the world of classical music. The result of their efforts was the William Byrd Festival, with Dean Applegate as Executive Director and Richard Marlow as Artistic Director.

Theirs was a collaboration that bore abundant fruit. Every summer for the past sixteen years, The William Byrd Festival has drawn musical luminaries from around the world to give voice to Byrd’s works and sing his praises in churches and lecture halls throughout the city. Scholars and musicians – such as Mark Williams (Jesus College, Cambridge), David Trendell (Kings College, London), William Mahrt (Stanford University) and Kerry McCarthy (Duke University) – have all traveled to this most remote corner of Christendom to participate in the Byrd Festival.

My own history with the Byrd Festival is less lengthy – as a teen growing up in Portland, I attended the occasional concert or liturgical service, but in the callowness of my youth, I didn’t quite grasp what I was witnessing. This changed, however, when in 2008 I was asked to join the Planning Committee for the Festival, which was formed to help assist with the growing administrative needs of the Festival as it entered into its second decade of existence. As a committee member, I had a myriad assortment of duties – from fundraising and taking minutes at committee meetings during the year, to ushering, pouring wine at receptions and hobnobbing with donors during the Festival. My one particular duty was to arrange for Richard Marlow’s accommodations during his visits to Portland.

For me, this was a Golden Age. Not only was I exposed to the breadth and splendor of Byrd’s works, but I was exposed to the breadth and splendor of the Festival’s musicians and volunteers, as well. Amidst a whirlwind schedule of lectures, concerts, luncheons and liturgical services, I forged friendships with many of my fellow committee members and the festival musicians – and I watched as friendships forged at the Byrd Festival created a latticework of new connections and friendships with people outside the the festival, including several members of my own “crew.” In particular, I had the privilege of getting to know Mark Williams and David Trendell, both men of limitless talent and impeccably epicurean tastes.

But one man that remained at the periphery of my acquaintances was Richard Marlow. Richard was always very cordial to me, but our conversations were brief and infrequent. Usually the extent of my conversations with Richard went something like this:

Me: “I hope your hotel room is to your liking, Richard?”

Richard: “Ah yes, it’s lovely, thank you.”

Me: “Splendid. More wine?”

It was not a particularly deep relationship, but when you work with someone two weeks out of the year, every year, you develop a certain feeling of kinship with them, all the same.

This all changed in 2011, however, when Richard was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of brain cancer. Over the next two years, we waited with baited breath and uneasy hearts as Richard battled this most insidious of diseases, undergoing treatment after treatment and going in and out of remission. In Richard’s absence, his former student Mark Williams very ably conducted the 2011 and 2012 Festivals, but all the while we waited and hoped that Richard would be well enough to return to Portland, a town he had grown to love as his second home.

As we prepared for this year’s Festival, Richard’s condition worsened and hopes dimmed. Then, early on the morning of Father’s Day, we heard the news: Richard was gone.

St Stephen

(I wrote this tribute to Richard in the days following his passing, but I think it warrants repeating here.)

I didn’t know Richard Marlow as well as I would have liked. When I look back on the handful of years that we were acquainted, the entries in my mental scrapbook of my interactions with Richard are precious few. However, when I think of the William Byrd Festival, which he co-founded, I find that I have memories, experiences and cherished friendships to last a lifetime. My mental scrapbook – and my heart – are full.

Together with Dean Applegate, Richard founded a Festival that has endured for the better part of two decades – one that has touched thousands of people – some of who have never even met Richard or set foot within the walls of St. Patricks, St. Stephens, or Trinity Episcopal. And that’s merely here in Portland, where we were privileged to enjoy his company for a dozen summers – the legacy he leaves behind here pales in comparison with the profound effect he had on choral music at Cambridge and throughout the world.

The world may seem a darker place, for Richard’s passing – but his legacy still burns brilliantly. Fare thee well, Richard – and rest in peace.

Richard Marlow 1939 - 2013

Richard Marlow
1939 – 2013

Unfortunately, most of the people reading this article will never have a chance to meet Richard Marlow or see him conduct.

What you do have, however, is the chance to witness his legacy in action. The 16th annual William Byrd Festival starts today. Over the next two weeks, my friends and and colleagues will gather at sites throughout Portland for two concerts, three lectures, and six liturgical services – but this year, we’ll be paying tribute not only to William Byrd, but also to our departed founder and colleague.

A couple of years ago, in a completely different musical genre, Seattle-area rapper Macklemore recorded a moving tribute to late sports announcer Dave Niehaus, a man whom many considered to be “The Voice of Seattle.” I thought a lot about that song, as I was writing this article. You won’t see any music videos from the Byrd Festival, but Richard Marlow was our Voice and this Festival is our tribute to him, all the same.

So whether you want to hear some beautiful music or you want to pay tribute to a great man, you should consider joining us.

Hope to see you there.

The 16th Annual William Byrd Festival (
Friday, 9 August – Sunday, 25 August
Various Locations – See website for Full Schedule

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s