WASHINGTON — After a sold out run in London’s West End, “Secret Byrd,” a new concert-theatre production from Bill Barclay, makes its U.S. premiere at Washington National Cathedral on Saturday, March 4 at 1 p.m. Additional performances include March 4 at 4 p.m. and March 5 at 7 p.m.

cast of Secret Byrd singing

The concert transports audience members back to 16th century England, where Catholic worshippers gathered behind closed doors to celebrate Mass against the threat of persecution during the height of Catholic-Protestant struggle. Cathedra, the Washington National Cathedral’s resident choral ensemble, will perform William Byrd’s “Mass for Five Voices” in the candlelit Bethlehem Chapel in the Cathedral crypt.

“This is a modern story through a 16th century lens,” Canon Michael McCarthy, Cathedral Director of Music said. “Strength in conviction, religious or otherwise, and the ability to live through conviction is not just a right but a necessary part of social wellbeing….and on a global scale. It will remain a work in progress, so we must continue to tell the story.”

“Secret Byrd” celebrates the freedom to believe while accentuating the religious persecution Catholics faced during the years of the English Reformation. Due to his unique position in society and musical talent, Byrd could cater to both the monarchy and his Catholic beliefs. Byrd was close to Queen Elizabeth I, a moderate Protestant, and served as Gentleman in Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal until he withdrew into underground Catholic communities, due to increased tension between Catholics and Protestants. Before he left London, he published three Latin Masses, including the “Mass for Five Voices.”

“This is about intolerance today, the true nature of belief itself, and the role of artists to advocate for civil liberties,” Barclay said.

Byrd’s musical activism was a brave act in a time of unrest and violence. Spies and paid informants for the Crown threatened to expose those secretly celebrating the Roman Catholic Mass, leading to punishment or even death. During “Secret Byrd,” a fierce knocking at the door signals the threat of capture. After a few strained minutes, the Mass continues, ending with a Communion that celebrates life and the power of music.

“We artistic types tend to look at the world and vainly wonder how we could improve it. Why not look to Byrd, for just an hour or so, and consider what he is still saying today,” Barclay said. “If his message wasn’t squarely to restore Catholicism, it was to live and let live, allowing people to believe what they wish.”

After four performances at Washington National Cathedral, “Secret Byrd” with Cathedra continues on to Concord, N.H.; Providence, R.I.; and Brooklyn, N.Y. View the Secret Byrd trailer now; tickets are on sale now for $60.


About Washington National Cathedral

Grounded in the reconciling love of Jesus Christ, Washington National Cathedral is a house of prayer for all people, conceived by our founders to serve as a great church for national purposes.

About Bill Barclay

Director, writer and composer Bill Barclay is Artistic Director of both Concert Theatre Works and Music Before 1800, NYC’s oldest early music presenter. A creator of concert-theatre, he was Director of Music at Shakespeare’s Globe from 2012-2019.

Barclay has written and directed two dozen original works of concert-theatre for the world’s leading ensembles. Last season featured The National Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Music of the Baroque, Chicago Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony, United Strings of Europe, Chautauqua and Caramoor Festivals, and the Harlem Chamber Players.

Broadway and West End credits as Music Supervisor include Farinelli and the King, Twelfth Night, and Richard III, all starring Sir Mark Rylance.

A “personable polymath” (London Times), Barclay has debuted commissions for the LA Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Silkroad, City of London Sinfonia, and The Boston Symphony Orchestra (five productions). He has created work for some of the world’s most iconic spaces: The Hollywood Bowl, The Kennedy Center, the Barbican, Buckingham Palace, Shakespeare’s Globe, The Southbank Centre, Hampton Court Palace and Washington National Cathedral.

As a composer, Barclay’s original music has been performed in 197 countries, 42 US states, for President Obama, the British Royal Family, for the Olympic Torch, at the United Nations, and in refugee camps in Jordan and Calais. He recently created a new Four Seasons Recomposed for Max Richter on period instruments with the puppetry masters Gyre & Gimble. He conducted King of Ghosts on tour with City of London Sinfonia, and the USACH Orchestra in Chile.

He founded the label Globe Music, recognized by the BBC and Royal Philharmonic Society, for Shakespeare’s Globe where he produced music for 130 productions and 150 concerts over seven years, composing 12 including Hamlet Globe-to-Globe to every country on earth.

A lauded actor, Barclay received a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship, the largest grant for actors in the US. A Boston native and past acting company member at Shakespeare & Company (10 years, Resident Music Director), the Actors Shakespeare Project (10 years, Artistic Associate), and The Mercury Theatre (Colchester, UK). He trained in Bali, The National Theatre Institute and Vassar College.