Wednesday, January 2, 8543

William Byrd (1543-1623)

William Byrd (1543-1623)

Fantasy in Four Parts (Viol Consort)

Mass for Five Voices: 1 Kyrie (1595)

Sing Joyfully Unto the Lord

William Byrd (between 1534 and 1543 – 4 July 1623) was an English composer of the Renaissance. He lived until well into the 1600's without writing music in the new Baroque fashion, but his keyboard works are said to have marked the beginning of the Baroque organ and harpsichord style.

William Byrd is believed to have been born in 1543, since in his will he describes himself as being in his eightieth year of life. The will is dated November 15, 1622, which would mean he was born between November 13, 1542 and November 14, 1543. However the statement about his age refers only to when he started writing his will. At this time in history, it might have taken several months to several years to complete a will. Therefore he may have been eighty in 1619 and taken 3 years to complete his will. Byrd drafted a deposition on or near 15 November 1598. In the deposition he is described (in someone else's handwriting) as "58 yeares or ther abouts". This would give a date of birth near the end of 1539 or in 1540. In that he case he could not possibly have been the "Wyllyam Byrd" who became a chorister in Westminster Abbey in 1543, though some sources have decided that Byrd must have been born even earlier, in 1534, in order to make this possible. The idea that he was born in Lincoln derives from the fact that the name "Byrd" is rare, and is found in that area. If he really was the "Wyllyam Byrd" at Westminster in 1543, then he is likely to have been born in London, not Lincoln. He must have been born sometime between 1534 and 1543, in Lincoln or London.

According to music historian John Harley, Byrd was the only member of his family sympathetic toward Catholicism. His brother John was a faithful member of the Church of England in Southwark, while his sister, nephew and niece married Protestants.

Like so many gifted musicians in Renaissance Europe, Byrd began his career at a very early age. He almost certainly sang in the Chapel Royal during Mary Tudor's reign (1553–1558), "bred up to music under Thomas Tallis." This places him in the best choir in England during his teenage years, alongside the finest musicians of his day, who were brought in from all over the British Isles, from the Netherlands, and even from Spain and Portugal. Mary I spent her brief reign reacting to the excesses of Protestant austerity under her predecessor Edward VI. Byrd seems to have thrived on the exuberant, creative atmosphere as well as here her taste for elaborate Latin church music: one manuscript from Queen Mary's chapel includes a musical setting of a long psalm for Vespers, with eight verses each by leading court composers William Mundy and John Sheppard, and four verses by the young Byrd.

He was eighteen years old when Mary died and her younger Protestant sister, Elizabeth I, succeeded her. The sudden change may well have driven him away from court. In his mid-twenties he became organist and choirmaster of Lincoln Cathedral, being named to the position on March 25, 1563 and living at 6 Minster Yard in the Cathedral Close. There the clergy apparently had to reprimand him for playing at excessive length during services, although he did continue to write music specifically to be played at Lincoln even after his move to London.

He married Juliana (or Julian) Byrd in 1568, and at least seven children are known: Christopher (baptized in 1569), Elizabeth (baptized early in 1572), Rachel (born sometime before 1574), Mary, Catherine, Thomas (baptized in 1576) and Edward.

After being named a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572, a well-paying job with considerable privileges attached to it, he moved back to London. He worked there as a singer, composer and organist for more than two decades. Just after his appointment, he and Tallis obtained a joint printing license from Queen Elizabeth. He published three collections of Latin motets or Cantiones Sacrae, one (in 1575) with the collaboration of his teacher and two (in 1589 and 1591) by himself after the older man had died.

Byrd composed the musical elegy Ye Sacred Muses on Tallis's death.

Alongside these, he brought out two substantial anthologies of music in English, Psalmes, Sonets and Songs in 1588 and Songs of Sundrie Natures in 1589. He also wrote a large amount of Anglican church music for the Chapel Royal, including the ten-voice Great Service and a number of anthems, including Sing joyfully. In 1591 he arranged for the transcription of many of his keyboard pieces to form a collection dedicated to a member of the Nevill family, titled My Ladye Nevells Booke, one of the most important anthologies of renaissance keyboard music. In 1593 he moved with his family to the small village of Stondon Massey in Essex, and spent the remaining thirty years of his life there, devoting himself more and more to music for the Roman liturgy. He published his three settings of the Mass Ordinary between 1592 and 1595, and followed them in 1605 and 1607 with his two books of Gradualia, an elaborate year-long musical cycle. He contributed eight pieces to the first printed collection of keyboard music in England, Parthenia, published circa 1611. He died on July 4, 1623, and is buried in Stondon churchyard.

Byrd, despite his Roman Catholic sympathies, worked in the court of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. He composed, intermittently, music for the Roman Catholic liturgy, particularly in his later years, exemplified by two volumes of Gradualia. He did not receive widespread recognition in his lifetime, but was very well respected among the Roman Catholic gentry. In the anti-Catholic frenzy following the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, the first volume of the Gradualia, printed by Thomas East in 1605, was banned in England under penalty of imprisonment, as indeed was all his Catholic music; however, his Anglican music, such as the Short Service and the Responses, has been sung in English cathedrals for four centuries.

One of the first steps taken by the Protestant reformers after the accession of Henry VIII was the revision of all books of worship and the establishment of a new, simplified musical style. By the time Byrd joined the Chapel Royal in the 1570s, the rules had relaxed somewhat, and he could produce elaborate works for what was still the best-funded and most famous choir in the country. Even as he won fame for his Anglican music, he was writing Latin motets about the plight of the English Catholic community, many of them publicly printed in his books of Cantiones. When he tired of compromise he left the court, and kept his position at the Chapel in absentia. He never returned to live in London. He continued to write secular songs, madrigals, and keyboard pieces until the end of his life, but his later church music, composed during the years in Essex, is exclusively Latin.

The three Masses and the two books of Gradualia, published over fifteen years, were Byrd's major contribution to the Roman rite. These were written for the intimate, even secretive, atmosphere of domestic worship, to be performed for a small group of skilled amateurs (which included women, according to contemporary accounts) and heard by a small congregation. Although such worship could be dangerous, sometimes a capital offence, Byrd went further than merely providing music. There are many records of his participation in illegal services. A Jesuit missionary describes a country house in Berkshire in 1586:

The gentleman was also a skilled musician, and had an organ and other musical instruments and choristers, male and female, members of his household. During these days it was just as if we were celebrating an uninterrupted Octave of some great feast. Mr. Byrd, the very famous English musician and organist, was among the company....

Byrd nevertheless lived as a free man, and kept his office in the Chapel Royal and the benefices associated with it. Shortly after the Gunpowder Plot was uncovered in November 1605, an unfortunate traveller was arrested in a London pub in possession of "certain papistical books written by William Byrd, and dedicated to Lord Henry Howard, earl of Northampton", the first set of Gradualia. The man was thrown into Newgate prison, one of the most notorious prisons in England. Byrd and his family suffered no such treatment but court records show him involved in endless lawsuits, mostly over his right to own property confiscated from another Catholic, and paying heavy fines. The reputation he had built as a young man in London, and the patronage of the Queen, must have helped him through his later years.

Artists often claimed a vocational immunity to the controversies of their age. John Taverner, who was implicated in the radical Oxford Protestant movement of the late 1520s, escaped a heresy trial with the plea that he was "but a musician". But the simple act of creating religious art put them in the centre of the fray. Byrd was talented and fortunate enough to continue his work, and to gain the esteem of nearly all his contemporaries. Henry Peacham reflected the public opinion when he wrote, just a few months before the composer's death, in his Compleat Gentleman:

For motets and music of piety and devotion, as well for the honour of our nation as the merit of the man, I prefer above all our Phoenix, Master William Byrd.

[8545 Pablo de Soto / 8543 Byrd / 8540 Dublin Virginal]