William Byrd (c.1539/40 or 1543 –July 4, 1623, by the Julian calendar, July 14, 1623, by the Gregorian calendar) was an English composer of the Renaissance, who wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard (the so-called Virginalist school), and consort music, and who produced sacred music for use in Anglican services, although he himself became a Roman Catholic in later life and wrote Catholic sacred music as well. Byrd was born in London with birth date variously given as c.1539/40 or 1543, the son of Thomas Byrd about whom nothing further is known, and his wife, Margery. The specific year of Byrd’s birth is uncertain. In his will, dated November 15, 1622, he describes himself as “in the 80th year of my age”, suggesting a birthdate of 1542 or 1543. However a document dated October 2, 1598 written in his own hand states that he is “58 yeares or ther abouts”, indicating an earlier birthdate of 1539 or 1540. Byrd had two brothers, Symond and John, who became London merchants, and four sisters, Alice, Barbara, Mary, and Martha.
There is no documentary evidence concerning Byrd’s early musical training. His two brothers were choristers at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Byrd may have been a chorister there as well under Simon Westcote, although it is possible that he was a chorister with the Chapel Royal. A reference in the prefatory material to the Cantiones sacrae published by Byrd and Thomas Tallis in 1575 tends to confirm that Byrd was a pupil of Tallis in the Chapel Royal. Moreover, one of Byrd’s earliest compositions was a collaboration with two Chapel Royal singing-men, John Sheppard and William Mundy, on a setting for four male voices of the psalm In exitu Israel for the procession to the font in Easter week. It was probably composed near the end of the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (1553–1558), who revived Sarum liturgical practices. A few other compositions by Byrd also probably date from his teenage years. These include his setting of the Easter responsory Christus resurgens which was not published until 1605, but which as part of the Sarum liturgy could also have been composed during Mary’s reign, as well as Alleluia confitemini which combines two liturgical items for Easter week. Some of the hymns and antiphons for keyboard and for consort may also date from this period, though it is also possible that the consort pieces may have been composed in Lincoln for the musical training of choirboys.
Byrd’s first known professional employment was his appointment in 1563 as organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, and he remained in post until 1572. On September 14, 1568, Byrd married Julian Birley; it was a long-lasting and fruitful union which produced at least seven children. The 1560s were also important formative years for Byrd the composer. His Short Service, an unpretentious setting of items for the Anglican Matins, Communion and Evensong services, which seems to have been designed to comply with the Protestant reformers’ demand for clear words and simple musical textures, may well have been composed during the Lincoln years. Byrd had also taken serious strides with instrumental music. The seven In Nomine settings for consort, at least one of the consort fantasias (Neighbour) and a number of important keyboard works were apparently composed during the Lincoln years. The latter include the Ground in Gamut (described as “Mr Byrd’s old ground”) by his future pupil Thomas Tomkins, the A minor Fantasia, and probably the first of Byrd’s great series of keyboard pavanes 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.
Byrd obtained the prestigious post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 following the death of Robert Parsons, a gifted composer who drowned in the Trent near Newark on January 25 of that year. Almost from the outset Byrd is named as ‘organist’, which however was not a designated post but an occupation for any Chapel Royal member capable of filling it. This career move vastly increased Byrd’s opportunities to widen his scope as a composer and also to make contacts at Court. Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603) was a moderate Protestant who eschewed the more extreme forms of Puritanism and retained a fondness for elaborate ritual, besides being a music lover and keyboard player herself. Shortly afterwards Byrd and Tallis were jointly granted a patent for the printing of music and ruled music paper for 21 years, one of a number of patents issued by the Crown for the printing of books on various subjects. The two monopolists took advantage of the patent to produce a grandiose joint publication under the title Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur. It was a collection of 34 Latin motets dedicated to the Queen herself, accompanied by elaborate prefatory matter including poems in Latin elegiacs by the schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster and the young courtier Ferdinand Heybourne (aka Richardson). There are 17 motets each by Tallis and Byrd, one for each year of the Queen’s reign. 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.”
From the early 1570s onwards Byrd became increasingly involved with Catholicism, which, as the scholarship of the last half-century has demonstrated, became a major factor in his personal and creative life. Byrd’s commitment to the Catholic cause found expression in his motets, of which he composed about 50 between 1575 and 1591. Thirty-seven of Byrd’s motets were published in two sets of Cantiones sacrae, which appeared in 1589 and 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 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.
The 1580s were also a productive decade for Byrd as a composer of instrumental music. In 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. The period up to 1591 also saw important additions to Byrd’s output of consort music, some of which have probably been lost. Two magnificent large-scale compositions are the Browning, a set of 20 variations on a popular melody (also known as “The leaves be green”) which evidently originated as a celebration of the ripening of nuts in autumn, and an elaborate ground on the formula known as the Goodnight Ground. The smaller-scale fantasias use a light-textured imitative style which owes something to Continental models, while the five and six-part fantasias employ large-scale cumulative construction and allusions to snatches of popular songs.
In about 1594 Byrd’s career entered a new phase. He was now in his early fifties, and seems to have gone into semi-retirement from the Chapel Royal. He moved with his family from Harlington to Stondon Massey, a small village near Chipping Ongar in Essex, where he lived for the rest of his life. It was evidently at the behest of this circle of friends that Byrd now embarked on a grandiose program to provide a cycle of liturgical music covering all the principal feasts of the Catholic Church calendar. The first stage in this undertaking comprised the three Ordinary of the Mass cycles (in four, three and five parts), which were published by Thomas East between 1592 and 1595. 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. 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 1605 set also contains a number of miscellaneous items which fall outside the liturgical scheme of the main body of the set.
Byrd’s staunch adherence to Catholicism did not prevent him from contributing memorably to the repertory of Anglican church music. Byrd’s small output of church anthems ranges in style from relatively sober early examples (O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our queen and How long shall mine enemies) to other, evidently late works such as Sing joyfully which is close in style to the English motets of Byrd’s 1611 set. Byrd’s last collection of English songs was Psalms, Songs and Sonnets, published in 1611 (when Byrd was over 70). During his later years Byrd also added to his output of consort songs. The songs include elegies for public figures such as the Earl of Essex (1601) and Henry Prince of Wales (1612). Others refer to local notabilities or incidents from the Norfolk area. Byrd also contributed eight keyboard pieces to Parthenia (winter 1612–13), a collection of 21 keyboard pieces engraved by William Hole, and containing music by Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons. Byrd remained in Stondon Massey until his death on July 4, 1623, which was noted in the Chapel Royal Check Book in a unique entry describing him as “a Father of Musick.” Byrd enjoyed a high reputation among English musicians, and his output of about 470 compositions amply justifies his reputation as one of the great masters of European Renaissance music. Byrd was an active and influential teacher. As well as Thomas Morley, his pupils included, Peter Philips, Thomas Tomkins and probably Thomas Weelkes, the first two of whom were important contributors to the Elizabethan and Jacobean virginalist school.
My collection includes the following works by William Byrd:
A Voluntary for My Ladye Nevell.