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Byrd, William

Category: Musician or composer

William Byrd ( around 1540 – 1623) was an English composer of the Renaissance. He wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard and consort music. Byrd's output of about 470 compositions amply justifies his reputation as one of the great masters of European Renaissance music.

Byrd was a pupil of Thomas Tallis. His first job was also with Tallis.  He then became the organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563. Byrd obtained the prestigious post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 aged about 32.

Byrd was affected considerably throughout his life, by the clash between his patron's wish for straightforward choral music and his desire to recreate 'celestial' music. On 19 November 1569, for example, the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln cathedral cited him for 'certain matters alleged against him' as the result of which his salary was suspended. It has also been noted that “Byrd's output of Anglican church music is surprisingly small, but it stretches the limits of elaboration then regarded as acceptable by some reforming Protestants who regarded highly wrought music as a distraction from the Word of God”.

In essence he had a real dilemma, because his pay came from the composition of music that had to conform to the Anglican's idea of what was acceptable, but his heart lay elsewhere. Separately from the compositions he composed for the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln for which he was paid, for example, Byrd separately composed instrumental music. The seven 'In Nomine' settings for consort (two a4 and five a5), at least one of the consort fantasias (Neighbour F1 a6) and a number of important keyboard works have been assigned to the Lincoln years. The latter include the Ground in Gamut, the A minor fantasia and probably the first of Byrd's great series of keyboard pavans and galliards. Some sets of keyboard variations, such as The Hunt's Up and the imperfectly preserved set on Gypsies’ Round also seem to be early works. The latter being particularly intriguing.

Equally intriguing are his settings of essentially Catholic Latin liturgical texts, for example, Ad Dominum cum tribularer (a8) and Domine quis habitabit (a9), as well as De lamentatione. Although scholarly opinion states that “It is likely that this practice was an expression of Elizabethan Catholic nostalgia”, it might also be that the texts provided Byrd with the inspiration to match 'heard' music with chant like texts – a potent combination in terms of the effects that can be provoked in listeners. From the point of view of aiding spiritual experience in the listener, Chanting is a very key method that I have included on this site.

In 1575, Byrd and Tallis were jointly granted a patent for the printing of music for 21 years. They took advantage of the patent to produce a grandiose joint publication under the title Cantiones que ab argumento sacrae vocantur dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. There are 17 motets each by Tallis and Byrd, one for each year of the Queen's reign.

Byrd's contribution to the Cantiones includes Laudate pueri (a6) ; Diliges Dominum (a8); Libera me Domine (a5); Miserere mihi (a6); and Tribue Domine (a6) 'set in three sections, each beginning with a semichoir passage in archaic style'.

The Cantiones were a financial failure. In 1577 Byrd and Tallis were forced to petition Queen Elizabeth for financial help pleading that the publication had 'fallen oute to oure greate losse' and that Tallis was now 'verie aged'. They were subsequently granted the leasehold on various lands in East Anglia and the West Country for a period of 21 years.

From the early 1570s onwards, Byrd became increasingly involved with Catholicism, which became a major factor in his personal and creative life. His involvement with Catholicism took on a new dimension in the 1580s. Following Pius V's Papal Bull of 1570, which absolved Elizabeth's subjects from allegiance to her and effectively made her an outlaw in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Catholicism became increasingly identified with sedition in the eyes of the Tudor authorities. With the influx of missionary priests trained in the English Colleges in Douai and Rome from the 1570s onwards, relations between the authorities and the Catholic community took a further turn for the worse. As a result of this, Byrd's membership of the Chapel Royal was suspended for a time, restrictions were placed on his movements and his house was placed on the search list. Byrd's commitment to the Catholic cause found expression in his motets, of which he composed about 50 between 1575 and 1591. Byrd's setting of the first four verses of Psalm 78 (Deus venerunt gentes) is “widely believed to refer to the cruel execution of Fr Edmund Campion in 1581 an event that caused widespread revulsion on the Continent as well as in England”. Byrd's Quomodo cantabimus is the result of a motet exchange between Byrd and Philippe de Monte, who was director of music to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, in Prague.

The sense of alienation and the death of his long time friend and collaborator Tallis, resulted in a series of 37 motets published in two sets of Cantiones sacrae, which appeared from 1589 to 1592. They are described as “pathetic in tone”. Written in the minor key they include Domine praestolamur (1589), the particularly striking  Tribulatio proxima est and Ne irascaris Domine (both 1589) and the multi-sectional Infelix ego (1591), a large-scale motet which takes its point of departure from Tribue Domine of 1575. Three of these motets employ the old-fashioned cantus firmus technique and a few motets, especially in the 1591 set, abandon traditional motet style and resort to vivid word painting.

In 1588 and 1589 Byrd also published two collections of English songs. The first, Psalms, Sonnets and Songs of Sadness and Pietie (1588) consists mainly of adapted consort songs, which Byrd turned into vocal part-songs by adding words to the accompanying instrumental parts. The consort song was a solo song for a high voice (often sung by a boy) accompanied by a consort of four consort instruments (normally viols).

In about 1594 Byrd's career entered a new phase. He was now in his early fifties, and he moved with his family from Harlington to Stondon Massey, a small village near Chipping Ongar in Essex to be near his patron Sir John Petre 'a discreet Catholic'. Petre held clandestine Mass celebrations, with music.  

Between 1592 and 1595, Byrd published three Ordinary of the Mass cycles (in four, three and five parts). All three Mass cycles include the Gloria, Credo and Agnus Dei. However, all three cycles also include Kyries, a rare feature in Sarum Rite mass settings. The Kyrie of the three-part Mass is set in a simple litany-like style, but the other Kyrie settings 'employ dense imitative polyphony'. “The final words dona nobis pacem ('grant us peace'), which are set to chains of anguished suspensions in the Four-Part Mass ....almost certainly reflect the aspirations of the troubled Catholic community of the 1590s”.

The second stage in Byrd's programme of liturgical polyphony is formed by the Gradualia, two cycles of motets containing 109 items and published in 1605 and 1607. “The appearance of these two monumental collections of Catholic polyphony reflects the hopes which the recusant community must have harboured for an easier life under the new king James I, whose mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been a Catholic”.

In stylistic terms the motets of the Gradualia form a sharp contrast to those of the Cantiones sacrae publications. The vast majority are shorter, with melodic writing and feature 'vivid madrigalesque word-painting'.

So, now let us pause and take stock. What were the sources of Byrd's inspiration?

Byrd appears to have had a happy marriage. On 14 September 1568, he married Julian Birley; “it was a long-lasting and fruitful union which produced at least seven children”. Thus love played a part, but there is a tantalising hint of perhaps other women in his life in the collection of instrumental music released in 1591 and called My Ladye Nevells Booke, a collection of 42 of Byrd's keyboard pieces. Lady Elizabeth Neville was the third wife of Sir Henry Neville. “Under her third married name, Lady Periam, she also received the dedication of Thomas Morley's two-part canzonets of 1595”, so she was perhaps a little special.

Grief also had a huge effect upon him, as we saw above when his long time friend Thomas Tallis died. Byrd also saw other members of his close group of friends die. He was involved in the literary circle surrounding Sir Philip Sidney and set three of the songs from Sidney's sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella to music. But Sidney was killed in the Battle of Zutphen in 1586.

He was also inspired by music itself – heard music and celestial music, but suffered considerable angst as he sought to try to find avenues of expressing what he had heard. It is quite probable that the first, Psalms, Sonnets and Songs of Sadness and Pietie (1588) were an attempt, with the soaring voices of young boys, to recreate something of what he had 'heard'. Lullaby (Lullay lullaby) “blends the tradition of the dramatic lament with the cradle-songs found in some early boy-plays and medieval mystery plays”.

He was also a believer in the existence of the spiritual world. Byrd was not brought up as a Catholic; “it is probable that Byrd's parental family were Protestants, though whether by deeply-felt conviction or nominal conformism is not clear”. But I think he saw in Catholicism something of the lost world of the spiritual. And he paid dearly for this adding, one suspects, to his sense of angst and fear. Byrd's wife Julian was first cited for recusancy (refusing to attend Anglican services) in 1577. Byrd himself appears in the recusancy lists from 1584. “He regularly appeared in the quarterly local assizes and was reported to the Archdeaconry court for non attendance at the parish church. He was required to pay heavy fines for recusancy. No doubt his wide circle of friends and patrons were able to ensure that he escaped the more severe penalties”.

Byrd's last collection of English songs was Psalms, Songs and Sonnets, published in 1611 (when Byrd was over 70) . Byrd remained in Stondon Massey until his death on 4 July 1623, which was noted in the Chapel Royal Check Book in a unique entry describing him as 'a Father of Musick'. Despite repeated citations for recusancy and swingeing fines, he died a rich man.

Henry Peacham (1576–1643)
‘For Motets and musick of piety and devotion, as well as for the honour of our Nation, as the merit of the man, I prefer above all our Phoenix M[aster] William Byrd, whom in that kind, I know not whether any may equall, I am sure none excel, ......... His Cantiones Sacrae, as also his Gradualia, are mere Angelicall and Divine; and being of himself naturally disposed to Gravity and Piety, his vein is not so much for leight Madrigals or Canzonets, yet his Virginella and some others in his first Set, cannot be mended by the best Italian of them all.’



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