The Classical Station’s interview with Stile Antico for Preview

Interview with Stile Antico
by Bethany Tillerson (Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas)

Rosie Parker and Rebecca Hickey of Stile Antico appear on Preview! this week to talk with Rob Kennedy about the music of William Byrd, whose compositions appear on their most recent release, The Golden Renaissance.

KENNEDY: Our guests this week are Rosie Parker and Rebecca Hickey of the English choral ensemble, Stile Antico. For our listeners who are perhaps unfamiliar with the celebrated William Byrd, please explain his significance.

STILE ANTICO: He’s one of the forefront Tudor composers, probably the forefront Tudor composer from Britain. He was writing at an incredibly interesting time in this country in that he was Catholic, but he was writing under Protestant rule under Elizabeth the First. And as such, almost all of his output is imbued with a certain atmosphere and conflict within it. He was a secret Catholic in a world that was not very accepting, and he managed to get away with it and he was actually given quite a long leash by Queen Elizabeth. But he lived during a very complicated time. As such, his music echoes that in lots of ways, and it’s carried through to today in so many ways.

He was in a difficult position. He was employed by a Protestant monarch, Elizabeth the First, and yet felt that the old Catholic faith was for him. But he managed to make an incredibly successful career. He was a singer in the Chapel Royal, and he also composed a lot of choral music, and he collaborated with one of the other big names from Tudor music, Thomas Tallis. The two of them obtained a monopoly on publishing from Elizabeth the First, so they were the only ones allowed to publish music in England at the time. They collaborated on a few publications and came up with some of the best-known choral music today.

KENNEDY: Can you describe his musical output for us?

STILE ANTICO: There were a number of different eras to his writing in some ways. A lot of it is written for the church and he was writing both for the court and also for private worship in his own time increasingly later in his life. But he also wrote plenty of madrigalian works.

He wrote a lot of keyboard music and he was incredibly prolific at that. I’ve just bought the Fitzwilliam Virginal book; it contains a lot of incredibly well-put-together pieces of keyboard music by Byrd as well as many other composers. He was very much respected in his time, as he still is.

KENNEDY: What are some of the challenges inherent in performing Byrd’s choral music?

STILE ANTICO: If there are challenges, they’re very, very good ones. It’s incredible music to sing. The way in which he sets text, whether it’s in English or in Latin, is incredibly emotive. Sometimes it’s difficult to pack enough feeling into the line because there’s so much to say. It’s fascinating music to perform with other people because each vocal line that he writes for is as considered as the other. Wherever you look, there’s something interesting on the page. So sometimes it’s about having to pare back your interpretation and just let the music speak for itself.

Sometimes I think when we sing Byrd’s music, we have to remind ourselves the most important thing is clarity, so that the counterpoint and everything has a chance to come forward.

KENNEDY: Finally, can you talk about your latest recording, The Golden Renaissance?

STILE ANTICO It’s largely a collection of his later works, and particularly some of them taken from the very end of his life, as well as his Gradualia, which are for the domestic worship in the house, enough music to comprise an entire mass should you need it.

It’s interspersed with smaller pieces and then the whole disc finishes off with a whopper of a piece called Tribue Domine, which is 13 minutes and 46 seconds long and in three parts, and it’s a very complex and involved piece of music. It’s definitely worth listening to. The first album in The Golden Renaissance series was Des Prez. We’re now preparing to record a disc of Palestrina’s music for 2025, which is going to be 500 years after his birth. It’s really important to us that people get to hear this music because it is absolutely wonderful.

It’s also nice to have a chance to scratch the surface beyond the big hitters, beyond some of our own corpus and those sorts of pieces that have been frequently performed. It has been really fun for us to have a chance to get to know this music. It’s coming back around now, but it felt a bit forgotten for a while. It’s absolutely fantastic to bring some of this stuff back out.

The group is approaching its 20th anniversary since its first professional concert. It started out as a group of university friends meeting up during the holidays roughly 20 years ago and singing for fun at home, and then gradually it snowballed. There have been some changes in personnel, but the type of person in the group has always been somebody very passionate about this music, and enjoying each other’s company is a really important part of it.

Join us for the full Preview! interview on Sunday, November 12th, at 7 p.m. Listen on, 89.7 FM, or our app.