by Melanie Spiller
You know how some people relate best to their parents’ generation? William Byrd was like that, being very much an Elizabethan figure (she reigned from 1558-1603), despite composing well into James I’s reign (1603-1625). His music and affinities belonged more to Edmund Spenser’s (c1552-1599) time than to that of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) or Francis Bacon (1561-1626), even though they were contemporaries. Byrd was firmly part of the group that defined Elizabethan culture, and it was his musical innovations that shaped what would become known as the English sound.
Byrd’s motets, the English version of the Italian madrigal, are the epitome of High Renaissance style. He also took the disheveled condition of English song in the 1560s and pulled it together to produce a rich and extensive repertoire of songs for consorts, a form that Byrd took seriously and that had no true imitators. He influenced lute songs with his consort pieces, and these evolved into what would become a distinctively English anthem form, Byrd’s most lasting legacy in English music.
His works for the virginal (a harpsichord-like keyboard instrument) transformed it from a parlor toy into an instrument of power and beauty. Byrd changed the direction of keyboard music, making it possible for later lights to shine, such as Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Frederic Chopin (1810-1949)—especially after the invention of the piano in 1770 or so.
Byrd’s direct impact on English composition can be compared to that of Shakespeare’s influence on the theater. Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) and Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) were his pupils, and possibly Peter Philips (c1560-1628), Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), and John Bull (c1562-1628). These, if you hadn’t guessed, are the royalty of English music during the Renaissance.
A Fettered Brilliance
He must have spent some of his formative years in London because he was Thomas Tallis’ pupil in 1575. Byrd grew up during Mary Tudor’s short reign, perhaps even in her Chapel Royal, and his early works were influenced by the big composers that had come before and whose music was still performed at court, including Robert Fayrfax (1461-1521) and John Taverner (1495-1545).
It’s probable that some of Byrd’s surviving compositions are from his teens. Three of the motets attributed to him are for the Sarum liturgy (an English interpretation of the Roman rite started in the 11th century, reinterpreted for the Anglican church in the 16th century, and ended during Mary Tudor’s reign), and indicate that he was composing before the death of Queen Mary, when he was 16 years old.
In 1558, Elizabeth became Queen of England, and the attitude toward Catholics changed. Although Elizabeth was fond of her two resident Catholic composers in the Chapel Royal, Byrd and Thomas Tallis, they weren’t allowed to openly practice their religion, and she wanted music composed that suited the new Church of England’s very British sensibilities.
In 1563, Byrd succeeded Robert Parsons (c1535-1572) as organist of Lincolnshire Cathedral (note that Parsons was not old enough to retire and he died by drowning rather than illness—there’s probably a good story there). Byrd was given a larger salary than usual as Master of the Choristers at Lincolnshire Cathedral, and he lived for free at the rectory at Hainton, in Lincolnshire.
Byrd married Juliana Birley (d. c1586) in 1568 at St. Margaret’s-in-the-Close in Lincoln. They had seven children: Christopher (1569-1615), Elizabeth (c1572- ?), Rachel (c1573- ?), Mary and Catherine (with no known dates), and twins Thomas and Edward (c1576-after 1651). Thomas was named after his godfather Thomas Tallis (or possibly William’s father) and was the only one of Byrd’s children to become a musician. After Juliana’s death, Byrd remarried a woman named Ellen. It’s possible that Mary and Catherine were products of the second marriage, as their dates are not recorded.
While at Lincoln, Byrd wrote most of his English liturgical music, although relatively little polyphony was required there. It looks, in fact, like he was trying to master all the genres, perhaps to get a better job in London. It worked.
Byrd was sworn in as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1570, but he didn’t move to London until 1572, when the accidental drowning death of Robert Parsons left an opening in the Chapel’s residencies. In 1573, after he’d left for London and his successor had been appointed (at a lower salary), the Lincolnshire chapter agreed, under pressure from certain councilors of the Queen, to continue paying Byrd on the condition that he continue sending musical compositions for their use. He received a quarter of his former salary (in addition to his Chapel Royal salary) until 1581.
In London, Byrd’s success was undeniable. For the next two decades, his name appears in relation to all kinds of important and powerful people. Elizabethan lords figure among the dedicatees for his various publications, and some were known to intercede on his behalf occasionally.
Around 1573 or 1574, he rented Battails Hall in Stapleford Abbots in Essex from the Earl of Oxford, the poet. This property—and others—would involve him in a series of vitriolic litigations.
As a member of the Royal Chapel in London, Byrd shared the post of organist with Thomas Tallis. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I granted the two composers a monopoly to print and market part-music and lined music paper, a trade with a previously limited presence in England. The immediate fruit of this labor was Cantiones Sacres, a collection of more than 60 sacred works, published that same year.
The contents of Cantiones Sacres were performed at Elizabeth I’s Chapel Royal. But otherwise, the publication didn’t do well and the pair published nothing further for 13 years. In 1577, they complained to the queen that their patent wasn’t profitable and petitioned for further benefits. Byrd received the Manor of Longney in Gloucestershire as a result. It would later be the source of more litigation.
Between 1563 and 1578, Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder (1543-1588), a prolific Italian composer, was in England in Elizabeth’s service, and was probably a spy. He was the son of Domenico Ferrabosco (1513-1574), an early madrigalist and former colleague of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palastrina (c1525-1594) at the Vatican. Alfonso, as a motet composer, had learned the style of Netherlander Orlando de Lassus (c1532-1594), and through him, Byrd came to understand the classical Netherlands imitative polyphony.
Times were tough for Catholics, and noblemen held secret Mass services in their private chapels. Few were prosecuted for this treasonous act, although it’s doubtful that Elizabeth I turned a blind eye. Byrd and Tallis were public figures and they had to put on a show of compliance.
But Byrd was known to be a Roman Catholic recusant, and he risked prosecution by writing Masses for undercover use. For English Catholics, 1581 became a year of decision and renewed commitment. In Harlingon, Byrd’s wife was cited for recusancy along with a servant. Byrd himself wasn’t cited until 1585, when lists of suspected recusant gathering places named his own house. The Byrd family was repeatedly accused of being recusants and in 1605, they were accused of being long-time seducers for the Catholic cause.
It was a terrible period for English Catholics, with rumors flying, forced retirement, assassinations, and executions. Byrd’s home at Harlington was searched twice, perhaps because he was there when he should have been in London. Byrd and his family were fined hugely, but there were concessions, probably at the behest of Elizabeth I. After all, he was still composing official pieces for her.
In the middle of all this turmoil, Juliana died in 1586 or so, and Byrd married Ellen.
In 1587, Byrd renewed his efforts at publishing. Both Tallis and Thomas Vautrollier (d.1587), the printer of the Cantiones Sacrae, had recently died, leaving Byrd in sole possession of the patent and free to make more advantageous business arrangements. With the printer Thomas East (c1540-c1608) as his assignee, Byrd presided over the first truly great years of English music printing.
Byrd began collecting a retrospective of his own music between 1588 and 1591, and he turned his attention to publishing purely English collections.
His first real success was the Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs of 1588, the third known book of English songs ever to be published. The collection sold out that first year, and East printed two further editions before 1593. Byrd prepared another book for publication, converting a few pieces to vocal-only and writing a bunch of new pieces to be included, including two carols, and an anthem called Christ rising.
Italian madrigals were hitting it big in England, but Byrd wasn’t particularly excited by them. His 1589 publication barely touched on them. Ferrabosco, who’d left England in 1578, printed his own offerings to the English music scene in Nicholas Yonge’s (c1560-1619) translated madrigal anthology.
After 1590, Byrd’s attitude toward Latin sacred music underwent a change. Where his early motets had been penitential meditations, prayers, exhortations, and protests on behalf of the Catholic community, he started to work on a grandiose scheme to provide music specifically for Catholic services. The texts were drawn from the liturgy, and the music itself became less monumental, to serve the liturgical purpose of a shorter service. It was a new way to serve the recusant cause.
If the music was truly to serve, Byrd had to publish it. But even with his connections in high places, it was a dangerous undertaking. His most famous Masses were printed between 1593 and 1595, each in its own slim book, with no title pages or publication dates. (More on these later.)
Byrd’s fifth collection wasn’t published in his lifetime. It was called My Ladye Nevells Booke, and was dated 1591. One branch of the Nevell family lived at Uxbridge, near Harlington, but the lady in question hasn’t been identified. At any rate, Byrd preserved the best of his virginal music in this book, both old and new. Among these were the last fantasias that he composed.
In 1593, Byrd moved further from London to a large property in Stondon Massey, Essex, between Chipping Ongar and Ingatestone. Ingatestone and Thorndon were the two seats of his patrons, the Petre family, and he probably joined the local recusant Catholic community over which the Petres presided. He composed some pieces for the clandestine Masses, and he dedicated Book 2 of his Gradualia to Lord Petre. His most famous settings of the Ordinary of the Mass were probably first written for the Petres.
In 1593, Byrd moved his family to Essex, where he spent the rest of his life. When his publishing patent expired in 1598, it went to Thomas Morley, and a broader range of music in greater quantity began to be published, which implies that Byrd had censored which works he printed.
Byrd spent increasingly less time in London, and his name doesn’t appear in any of the lists of witnesses and petitioners recorded in the Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal between 1592 and 1623, except in the formal register of the members.
He continued to compose, although new music reigned in London and his style of music was as out of fashion as his religion. He spent most of his time dealing with litigation about the numerous leases he’d acquired by grant or purchase. There were at least six lawsuits, and all of them dragged on; the one regarding Stondon Massey lasted 17 years. Byrd was not always in the right, and when he was the one suing, he was unpleasantly tenacious. Even in his will, he mentions a quarrel with his daughter-in-law Catherine and the “undutiful obstinacy of one whom I am unwilling to name.”
Byrd’s three Latin Masses were published openly in the 1590s, and after publication of the Gradualia (in 1605 and 1607, for use with the Catholic liturgy), possession of either book became a criminal offence. With the Gradualia of 1605, Byrd’s half-hearted effort to conceal his identity was abandoned. The political climate was more favorable in 1605, but things changed with the Gunpowder Plot (a failed Catholic uprising against James I), and at least one person was arrested for merely being in possession of the Gradualia. Byrd’s response was to withdraw the books and store the pages.
It would be nice to know how many Jacobean households celebrated Mass with Byrd’s Gradualia. Appleton Hall in Norfolk was certainly one. It was the home of Edward Paston, and was best known as the home of the Paston Letters (a collection of letters and papers from between 1422 and 1509). Byrd set some of Paston’s poetry to music in the consort-song style that he developed between 1596 and 1612.
Byrd was both a traditionalist and an innovator, converting Continental ideas of counterpoint and imitation into a new native-English tradition, and his expressive range was unusually wide.
Although his works were colored by the times in which he lived, many of his motets, galliards, and pastorals are exuberant and joyous. As a precaution against religious persecution, he took his texts from the Bible and other unassailable sources and he wrote for both Catholic and Anglican churches with equal genius.
His lifetime output—at least what is credited to him—includes 180 motets, three Latin Masses, four Anglican Services, dozens of anthems, secular part-songs, fantasias and other works for viol consort, and variations, fantasias, dances, and other works for keyboards. His vocal music includes psalms, sonnets and songs, and around 50 consort songs that could be sung or played by a consort of instruments.
During Byrd’s lifetime, there were few opportunities to perform his Latin motets publically because the requirement was that the new Anglican rite be sung in English only. His Latin motets capture the spirit of his religious loyalties and he probably wrote so many of them as a way of comforting the Catholic community that celebrated their faith in secret. He was fond of comparing the Catholic situation in England to that of the Jews in Biblical times; some of his motets lament for Jerusalem at the time of Babylonian captivity, some pray that the congregation might be liberated, and others are on the theme of the coming of God that was foretold in the Old Testament. But it was probably this very limitation that spurred Byrd’s creative juices into inventing the anthem.
The secular songs he wrote predate the true madrigal (an Italian form of polyphony that lasted from the late 16th century until the mid 17th), and used intricate, flowing counterpoint derived from an earlier English style like that of Tallis (c1505-1585) and Taverner (1495-1545). His motets show him well free of the “for every syllable a note” restriction set up by Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) during the Reformation, and reveal his mastery of freely imitative polyphony.
Byrd’s early settings of English poems were strophic songs, where all verses and choruses use the same tune—nowadays, we think of this as “normal,” but it wasn’t always so.
Like many other composers before and after him, Byrd used existing melodies, such as Greensleeves, in bits and pieces, throughout his consort pieces. It was a way of using tunes that would have been familiar to the congregation, and it offers today’s musicologists an insight into secular melodies, which were much less well documented than church music.
Byrd was only 10 years old in 1553 when Mary Tudor took the throne, so it’s unlikely that his Masses were much influenced by the five years of safety that her reign offered to Catholics. Despite the covert nature of his religious affinities, his Masses convey a certain freedom that it was never possible to display publically during his lifetime.
He used Continental-style patterns of imitation, but his occasional elaborate melismas (fancy bits where a single syllable is sung across a lot of notes) were more ornate than anything done by his predecessors. His Great Service uses imitative polyphony with frequent repetition of the text during the doxology (a short praise hymn that is often appended to the end of canticles, psalms, and hymns). This innovation would be widely imitated by later composers.
Life as a Catholic was difficult, and his works reflect that. All are fairly short, suitable for clandestine celebrations of Mass. Their contrapuntal style is remarkable for the variety of rhythms displayed during such short works. In this respect, Byrd’s music is more accessible to modern ears than other works from the predominantly Catholic Continent.
Byrd’s teaching was preserved by Thomas Morley in his Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke from 1597, which contains many remarkable tributes to Byrd. Luckily for posterity, Byrd also anthologized his own works, and his legacy in England is deservedly as great as that of Josquin (c1440-1521) in Europe. He was constantly learning and improving on his own work, and through his anthologies, it’s possible to see how he carefully reworked problems he’d been unable to resolve in his earlier works.
His last printed works were four quiet sacred songs that he published in Sir William Leighton’s Teares or Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soule in 1614.
Byrd died a wealthy man at Stondon Massy on the 4th of July in 1623. He was probably buried in the parish churchyard as specified by his will, but his grave hasn’t been located. The will also states that he had apartments in the London house of the Earl of Worcester, which suggests that he might have been a private musician there. He also had a chamber in the Petres’ house at West Thorndon.
The only known portrait of Byrd was painted 105 years after his death and is therefore unreliable.
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“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.
“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.
“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.
“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.
“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1973.
“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.
“The New Grove High Renaissance Masters,” by Jeremy Noble, Gustave Reese, Lewis Lockwood, James Harr, Joseph Kerman, Robert Stevenson. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1984.
Melanie Spiller is a medieval musician in San Francisco, California. She’s a bit of a chant-aholic, sings against anything with a drone from the refrigerator’s hum to a leaf blower to a shruti box, and is looking for a publisher (or two) for her books on Hildegard von Bingen (fiction and non-fiction). Her blog focuses mostly on the history of music. She’d love to help you figure out what your characters were listening to or what kind of instrument they would have played. Her blogs are collected on her website (www.MelanieSpiller.com) and publish approximately weekly at http://coloraturaconsulting.