William Byrd (c. 1540 – 4 July 1623) was an English composer of the Renaissance. He cultivated many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard and consort music
Byrd’s first known professional employment was an organist and choirmaster of Lincoln Cathedral, a post which he held from 25 March 1563. Residing at 6 Minster Yard Lincoln, he remained in post until 1572. His period at Lincoln was not entirely trouble-free, for on 19 November 1569 the Dean and Chapter cited him for ‘certain matters alleged against him’ as the result of which his salary was suspended. Since Puritanism was influential at Lincoln, it is possible that the allegations were connected with over-elaborate choral polyphony or organ playing. A second directive dated 29 November issued detailed instructions regarding Byrd’s use of the organ in the liturgy. On 14 September 1568 Byrd married Julian Birley, a long-lasting and fruitful union which produced at least seven children.
The 1560s were also important formative years for Byrd the composer. The Short Service, an unpretentious setting of items for the Anglican Matins, Communion and Evensong services, which seems to designed to comply with the Protestant reformers’ demand for clear words and simple musical textures, may well have been composed during the Lincoln years. It is at any rate clear that Byrd was composing Anglican church music, for when he left Lincoln the Dean and Chapter continued to pay him at a reduced rate on condition that he would send the cathedral his compositions. Byrd had also taken serious strides with 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 (described as ‘Mr Byrd’s old ground’) by Thomas Tomkins, the A minor fantasia and probably the first of Byrd’s great series of keyboard pavans and galliards, a composition which was transcribed by Byrd from an original for five-part consort. All these show Byrd gradually emerging as a major figure on the Elizabethan musical landscape.
Some sets of keyboard variations, such as The Hunt’s Up and the imperfectly preserved set on Gipsies’ Round also seem to be early works. As we have seen, Byrd had begun setting Latin liturgical texts as a teenager, and he seems to have continued to do so at Lincoln. Two exceptional large-scale psalm motets, Ad Dominum cum tribularer (a8) and Domine quis habitabit (a9) are Byrd’s contribution to a genre cultivated by Robert White and Robert Parsons. De lamentatione, another early work, is a contribution to the Elizabethan practice of setting groups of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah following the format of the Tenebrae lessons sung in the Catholic rite during the last three days of Holy Week, other contributors including Tallis, White, Parsley and the elder Ferrabosco. It is likely that this practice was an expression of Elizabethan Catholic nostalgia, as a number of the texts suggest.
Byrd’s contribution to the Cantiones is highly variegated in character. The inclusion of Laudate pueri (a6) which proves to be an instrumental fantasia with words added after composition, is one sign that Byrd had some difficulty in assembling enough material for the collection. Diliges Dominum (a8), which may also originally have been untexted, is an eight-in-four retrograde canon of little musical interest. Also belonging to the more archaic stratum of motets is Libera me Domine (a5), a cantus firmus setting of the ninth responsory at Matins for the Office for the Dead, which takes its point of departure from the setting by Robert Parsons, while Miserere mihi (a6), a setting of a Compline antiphon often used by Tudor composers for didactic cantus firmus exercises, incorporates a four-in-two canon. Tribue Domine (a6) is a large-scale sectional composition setting a from a medieval collection of Meditationes which was commonly attributed to St Augustine, composed in a style which owes much to earlier Tudor settings of votive antiphons as a mosaic of full and semichoir passages. Byrd sets it in three sections, each beginning with a semichoir passage in archaic style.
Byrd’s contribution to the Cantiones also includes compositions in a more forward-looking manner which point the way forwards to his motets of the 1580s. Some of them show the influence of the motets of Alfonso Ferrabosco I (1543-1588), a Bolognese musician who worked in the Tudor court at intervals between 1562 and 1578. Ferrabosco’s motets provided direct models for Byrd’s Emendemus in melius (a5), O lux beata Trinitas (a6), Domine secundum actum meum (a6) and Siderum rector (a5) as well as a more generalized paradigm for what Joseph Kerman has called Byrd’s ‘affective-imitative’ style, a method of setting pathetic texts in extended paragraphs based on subjects employing curving lines in fluid rhythm and contrapuntal techniques which Byrd learnt from his study of Ferrabosco.
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.
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 Roman 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. Byrd himself is found in the company of prominent Catholics. In 1583 he got into serious trouble because of his association with Lord Thomas Paget, who was suspected of involvement in the Throckmorton Plot, and for sending money to Catholics abroad. 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. In 1586 he attended a gathering at a country house which also included Father Henry Garnett (later executed for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot) and the Catholic poet Robert Southwell.
Byrd’s commitment to the Catholic cause found expression in his motets, of which he composed about 50 between 1575 and 1591. While the texts of the motets included by Byrd and Tallis in the 1575 Cantiones have a High Anglican doctrinal tone, scholars such as Joseph Kerman have detected a profound change of direction in the texts which Byrd set in the motets of the 1580s. In particular there is a persistent emphasis on themes such as the persecution of the chosen people (Domine praestolamur a5) the Babylonian or Egyptian captivity (Domine tu iurasti a5) and the long-awaited coming of deliverance (Laetentur caeli a5i, Circumspice Jerusalem a6) which has led scholars from Kerman onwards to believe that Byrd was reinterpreting biblical and liturgical texts in a contemporary context and writing laments and petitions on behalf of the persecuted Catholic community, which seems to have adopted Byrd as a kind of ‘house’ composer. Some texts should probably be interpreted as warnings against spies (Vigilate, nescitis enim a5) or lying tongues (Quis est homo a5) or celebration of the memory of martyred priests (O quam gloriosum a5). Byrd’s setting of the first four verses of Psalm 78 (Deus venerunt gentes a5) is widely believed to refer to the cruel execution of Fr Edmund Campion (Catholic martyr) in 1581, an event which caused widespread revulsion on the Continent as well as in England. Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, Byrd’s Quomodo cantabimus (a8) 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. In 1583 De Monte sent Byrd his setting of verses 1-4 of Psalm 136 (Super flumina Babylonis a8), ending with the pointed question ’How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ Byrd replied the following year with a setting of the defiant continuation, set in eight parts and incorporating a three-part canon by inversion.
There are also a number of compositions which fail to conform to this stylistic pattern. They include three motets which employ the old-fashioned cantus firmus technique as well as the most famous item in the 1589 collection, Ne irascaris Domine (a5) the second part of which is closely modelled on Philip van Wilder’s popular Aspice Domine (a5). A few motets, especially in the 1591 set, abandon traditional motet style and resort to vivid word-painting which reflects the growing popularity of the madrigal (Haec dies a6, 1591). A famous passage from Thomas Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597) supports the view that the madrigal had superseded the motet in the favour of Catholic patrons, a fact which may explain why Byrd largely abandoned the composition of non-liturgical motets after 1591.
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, probably guided by commercial instincts, had turned into vocal part-songs by adding words to the accompanying instrumental parts and labelling the original solo voice as ‘the first singing part’. The consort song, which was the most popular form of vernacular polyphony in England in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, was a solo song for a high voice (often sung by a boy) accompanied by a consort of four consort instruments (normally viols). As the title of Byrd’s collection implies, consort songs varied widely in character. Many were settings of metrical psalms, in which the solo voice sings a melody in the manner of the numerous metrical psalm collections of the day (e.g. Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, 1562) with each line prefigured by imitation in the accompanying instruments. Others are dramatic elegies, intended to be performed in the boy-plays which were popular in Tudor London.
Byrd’s 1588 collection, which complicates the form as he inherited it from Robert Parsons, Richard Farrant and others, reflects this tradition. The ‘psalms’ section sets texts drawn from Sternhold’s psalter of 1549 in the traditional manner, while the ‘sonnets and pastorals’ section employs lighter, more rapid motion with crotchet (quarter-note) pulse, and sometimes triple metre (Though Amaryllis dance in green). Poetically, the set (together with other evidence) reflects Byrd’s involvement with the literary circle surrounding Sir Philip Sidney, whose influence at Court was at its height in the early 1580s. Byrd set three of the songs from Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, as well as poems by other members of the Sidney circle, and also included two elegies on Sidney’s death in the Battle of Zutphen in 1586. But the most popular item in the set was the Lullaby (Lullay lullaby) which blends the tradition of the dramatic lament with the cradle-songs found in some early boy-plays and medieval mystery plays. It long retained its popularity. In 1602 Byrd’s patron Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester, discussing Court fashions in music, predicted that ‘in winter lullaby, an owld song of Mr Birde, wylbee more in request as I thinke’.
The Songs of Sundrie Natures (1589) contain sections in three, four, five and six parts, a format which follows the plan of many Tudor manuscript collections of household music and was probably intended to emulate the madrigal collection Musica transalpina, which had appeared in print the previous year. Byrd’s set contains compositions in a wide variety of musical styles, reflecting the variegated character of the texts which he was setting. The three-part section includes settings of metrical versions of the seven penitential psalms, in an archaic style which reflects the influence of the psalm collections. Other items from the three-part and four-part section are in a lighter vein, employing a line-by-line imitative technique and a predominant crotchet pulse. The five-part section includes vocal part-songs which show the influence of the ‘adapted consort song’ style of the 1588 set but which seem to have been conceived as all-vocal part-songs. Byrd also bowed to tradition by setting two carols in the traditional form with alternating verses and burdens, and even included an anthem, a setting of the Easter prose Christ rising again which also circulated in church choir manuscripts with organ accompaniment.
The 1580s were also a productive decade for Byrd as a composer of instrumental music. On 11 September 1591 John Baldwin, a tenor lay-clerk at St George's Chapel, Windsor and later a colleague of Byrd in the Chapel Royal, completed the copying of My Ladye Nevells Booke, a collection of 42 of Byrd’s keyboard pieces which was probably produced under Byrd’s supervision and includes corrections which are thought to be in the composer’s hand. Byrd would almost certainly have published it if the technical means had been available to do so. The dedicatee long remained unidentified, but John Harley’s researches into the heraldic design on the fly-leaf have shown that she was Lady Elizabeth Neville, the third wife of Sir Henry Neville (Gentleman of the Privy Chamber) of Billingbear in Berkshire, who was a Justice of the Peace and a warden of Windsor Great Park. Under her third married name, Lady Periam, she also received the dedication of Thomas Morley’s two-part canzonets of 1595. The contents show Byrd’s mastery of a wide variety of keyboard forms, though liturgical compositions based on plainsong are not represented. The collection includes a series of ten pavans and galliards in the usual three-strain form with embellished repeats of each strain. (The only exception is the Ninth Pavan, which is a set of variations on the passamezzo antico bass)
There are indications that the sequence may be a chronological one, for the first pavan is labelled ‘the first that ever hee made’ in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and the Tenth Pavan, which is separated from the others, evidently became available at a late stage before the completion date. It is dedicated to William Petre (the son of Byrd’s patron John Petre, 1st Baron Petre) who was only 15 years old in 1591 and could hardly have played it if it had been composed much earlier. The collection also includes two famous pieces of programme music. The Battle, which was apparently inspired by an unidentified skirmish in Elizabeth’s Irish wars, is a sequence of movements bearing titles such as ‘The marche to fight’, ‘The battells be joyned’ and ‘The Galliarde for the victorie’. Although not representing Byrd at his most profound, it achieved great popularity and is of incidental interest for the information which it gives on sixteenth-century English military calls. It is followed by The Barley Break (a mock-battle follows a real one), a light-hearted piece which follows the progress of a game of barley-break, a version of the game now known as ‘piggy in the middle’ played by three couples with a ball. My Ladye Nevells Booke also contains two monumental Grounds, and sets of keyboard variations of variegated character, notably the huge set on Walsingham and the popular variations on Sellinger’s Round, Carman’s Whistle and Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home. The fantasias and voluntaries in Nevell also cover a wide stylistic range, some being austerely contrapuntal (A voluntarie, no. 42)) and others lighter and more Italianate in tone. Like the five-and six-part consort fantasias, they sometimes feature a gradual increase in momentum after an imitative opening paragraph.
Byrd’s acquaintance with the Petre family extended back at least to 1581 (as his surviving autograph letter of that year shows) and he spent two weeks at the Petre household over Christmas in 1589. He was ideally equipped to provide elaborate polyphony to adorn the music making at the Catholic country houses of the time. The continued adherence of Byrd and his family to Catholicism continued to cause him difficulties, though one surviving petition suggests that he was granted permission to practise his religion under licence during the reign of Elizabeth. Nevertheless, he regularly appeared in the quarterly local assizes to pay heavy fines for recusancy. No doubt his wide circle of friends and patrons among the nobility and gentry were able to ensure that he escaped more severe penalties.
All three Mass cycles employ other early Tudor features, notably the mosaic of semichoir sections alternating with full sections in the four-part and five-part Masses, the use of a semichoir section to open the Gloria, Credo and Agnus Dei, and the head-motif which links the openings of all the movements of a cycle. However, all three cycles also include Kyries, a rare feature in Sarum Rite mass settings which usually omitted it because of the use of tropes on festal occasions in the Sarum Rite. The Kyrie of the three-part Mass is set in a simple litany-like style, but the other Kyrie settings employ dense imitative polyphony. A special feature of the four-part and five-part Masses is Byrd’s treatment of the Agnus Dei, which employ the technique which Byrd had previously applied to the petitionary clauses from the motets of the 1589 and 1591 Cantiones sacrae. The final words dona nobis pacem ('grant us peace'), which are set to chains of anguished suspensions in the Four-Part Mass and expressive block homophony in the five-part setting almost certainly reflect the aspirations of the troubled Catholic community of the 1590s.
The greater part of the two collections consists of settings of the Proprium Missae for the major feasts of the church calendar, thus supplementing the Mass Ordinary cycles which Byrd had published in the 1590s. Normally, Byrd includes the Introit, the Gradual, the Alleluia (or Tract in Lent if needed), the Offertory and Communion. The feasts covered include the major feasts of the Virgin Mary (including the votive masses for the Virgin for the four seasons of the church year), All Saints and Corpus Christi (1605) followed by the feasts of the Temporale (Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Whitsun and Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (with additional items for St Peter’s Chains and the Votive Mass of the Blessed Sacrament) in 1607. The verse of the introit is normally set as a semichoir section, returning to full choir scoring for the Gloria Patri. Similar treatment applies to the Gradual verse, which is normally attached to the opening Alleluia to form a single item. The liturgy requires repeated settings of the word ‘Alleluia’, and Byrd provides a wide variety of different settings forming brilliantly conceived miniature fantasias which are one of the most striking features of the two sets. The Alleluia verse, together with the closing Alleluia, normally form an item in themselves, while the Offertory and the Communion are set as they stand.
In the Roman liturgy there are many texts which appear repeatedly in different liturgical contexts. To avoid having to set the same text twice, Byrd often resorted to a cross-reference or ‘transfer’ system which allowed a single setting to be slotted into a different place in the liturgy. Unfortunately, this practice sometimes causes confusion, partly because normally no rubrics are printed to make the required transfer clear and partly because there are some errors which complicate matters still further. A good example of the transfer system in operation is provided by the first motet from the 1605 set (Suscepimus Deus a5) in which the text used for the Introit has to be reused in a shortened form for the Gradual. Byrd provides a cadential break at the cut-off point.
The 1605 set also contains a number of miscellaneous items which fall outside the liturgical scheme of the main body of the set. As Philip Brett has pointed out, most of the items from the four- and three-part sections were taken from the Primer (the English name for the Book of Hours) thus falling within the sphere of private devotions rather than public worship. These include, inter alia, settings of the four Marian antiphons from the Roman Rite, four Marian Vesper hymns set a3, a version of the Litany, the gem-like setting of the Eucharistic hymn Ave verum Corpus, and the Turbarum voces from the St John Passion, as well as a series of miscellaneous items.
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 the discursive imitative paragraphs of the earlier motets giving place to double phrases in which the counterpoint, though intricate and concentrated, assumes a secondary level of importance. Long imitative paragraphs are the exception, often kept for final climactic sections in the minority of extended motets. The melodic writing often breaks into quaver (eighth-note) motion, tending to undermine the minim (half-note) pulse with surface detail. Some of the more festive items, especially in the 1607 set, feature vivid madrigalesque word-painting. The Marian hymns from the 1605 Gradualia are set in a light line-by-line imitative counterpoint with crotchet pulse which recalls the three-part English songs from Songs of sundrie natures (1589). For obvious reasons, the Gradualia never achieved the popularity of Byrd’s earlier works. The 1607 set omits several texts, which were evidently too sensitive for publication in the light of the renewed anti-Catholic persecution which followed the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. An interesting contemporary account which sheds light on the circulation of the music between Catholic country houses, refers to the arrest of a French Jesuit named De Noiriche, who was followed from an unidentified country house by spies, apprehended, searched and found to be carrying a copy of the 1605 set. Nevertheless, Byrd felt safe enough to reissue both sets with new title pages in 1610.
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, having rooms at the time of his death at the London home of the Earl of Worcester.
Byrd enjoyed a high reputation among English musicians, especially in the earlier stages of his career. Despite the failure of the Cantiones of 1575 some of his other collections sold well, while Elizabethan scribes such as the Oxford academic Robert Dow, the Windsor lay clerk John Baldwin and a school of scribes working for the Norfolk country gentleman Sir Edward Paston copied his music extensively. Dow included Latin distichs and quotations in praise of Byrd in his manuscript collection of music (GB Och 984-8) while Baldwin included a long doggerel poem in his commonplace book (GB Lbm Roy App 24 d 2) ranking Byrd at the head of the musicians of his day:
In 1597 Byrd’s pupil Thomas Morley dedicated his treatise A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke to Byrd in flattering terms, though he may have intended to counterbalance this in the main text by some sharply satirical references to a mysterious ‘Master Bold’. In The Compleat Gentleman (1622) Henry Peacham (1576 - 1643) praised Byrd in lavish terms as a composer of sacred music:
Finally, and most intriguingly, it has been argued that a reference to ‘the bird of loudest lay’ in Shakespeare’s mysterious allegorical poem The Phoenix and the Turtle may be to the composer. The poem as a whole has been interpreted as an elegy for the Catholic martyr Saint Anne Line, who was executed on 27 February 1601 for harbouring priests.
Although Byrd had a major reputation in England during his lifetime, his music was in many respects curiously uninfluential. Although his pupils included Peter Philips and Thomas Tomkins, both of whom were active as keyboard composers, the native virginal school to which he had contributed so much went into sharp decline with a number of deaths in the 1620s and never recovered. Thomas Morley, Byrd’s other major composing pupil, devoted himself to the cultivation of the madrigal, a form in which Byrd himself took little interest. The native tradition of Latin music which Byrd had done so much to keep alive more or less died with him, while consort music underwent a huge change of character at the hands of a new generation of professional musicians at the Jacobean and Caroline courts. Ironically in view of Byrd’s own religious beliefs, it was his Anglican church music which came closest to establishing a continuous tradition, at least in the sense that some of it continued to be performed in choral foundations after the Restoration and into the eighteenth century. Byrd’s exceptionally long lifespan meant that he lived into an age in which many of the forms of vocal and instrumental music which he had made his own had lost their appeal to most musicians. Despite the efforts of eighteenth and nineteenth-century antiquarians, the reversal of this judgement had to wait for the pioneering work of twentieth-century scholars from E. H. Fellowes onwards. In more recent times Joseph Kerman, Oliver Neighbour, Philip Brett, John Harley, Richard Turbet, Alan Brown and others have made major contributions to increasing our understanding of Byrd’s life and music.
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