William Byrd was one of the finest composers of his age and one of the very finest English composers ever to have lived. Almost 600 of his pieces have survived: church music with Latin texts; church music with English texts; partsongs and madrigals; consort songs; instrumental ensemble music; and keyboard music. The music he wrote for the Anglican church has never fallen out of favour, but most of his other music had to wait until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century for its revival. A century later, that revival is at its peak.
Byrd is thought to have been born in or around 1543 and died in 1623. From the sources that survive, we think that he was probably born in London and sang as a chorister in the choir of the Chapel Royal where he may have studied under Thomas Tallis and sung alongside John Sheppard. But the first biographical certainty in our chronology of Byrd is that he became Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral on 25 March 1563. During his time at Lincoln, he married, had the first two of his seven children, and wrote much keyboard and other instrumental music, such as his finest piece from this period – the majestic Ad Dominum cum tribularer, an eight-voice setting of Psalm 120 (‘When I was in trouble I called upon the Lord’). He then moved to London, sworn in as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in Whitehall Palace in 1572.
Problematically, Byrd was Roman Catholic at a time when England was a Protestant nation. Yet he evidently felt safer working around Queen Elizabeth in London than he had around Archdeacon Aylmer at Lincoln. Elizabeth could exhibit remarkable religious tolerance when she chose to, whereas Aylmer was on a mission to root out recusants and to purge the ‘nest of unclean birds’. In the event, Byrd managed to remain on the payroll of Lincoln Cathedral for ten years after moving to London, providing liturgical music with English texts for the cathedral’s use.
It is often felt (if not explicitly stated) that his English music for the church is inferior to his Latin music and it is certainly true that the English music is generally simpler and more concise. However, as with the English-texted music of his supposed teacher Tallis, there is nothing pedestrian about Byrd’s sacred music with English words. On the contrary, the stylistic restrictions of Anglicanism provoked him to write music of unusually great beauty and significance. In particular, Byrd’s so-called ‘Great Service’ stands alongside the best English sacred music of Purcell as the finest in the history of the Church of England.
Byrd was probably in his early thirties when he was appointed Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, but his compositional style was already fully formed. Queen Elizabeth granted Tallis and Byrd a 21-year patent for the printing of music in England (including blank manuscript paper), as well as rights over the importation of foreign music. The first fruits of their monopoly were the Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur of 1575. The title is revealing: ‘Songs which by their argument are called sacred’. In other words, if you choose to interpret the Latin words of these songs as religiously significant, that’s up to you. The 34 pieces (half by Tallis, half by Byrd) were intended as a showcase of English music at its most sophisticated and the penitential motet Emendemus in melius and the jubilant psalm-motet Attollite portas show a great composer at work.
After Tallis’s death in 1585, Byrd found himself in sole charge of the music-publishing monopoly and he made good use of it: two volumes of English music were published in 1588 and 1589 and two volumes of Latin music in 1589 and 1591. These 70 or so English pieces and almost 40 Latin ones showed that he was without doubt the most accomplished composer in England. Byrd was adept at attracting sponsorship, and it is significant that his most important patrons were Roman Catholic sympathisers – Sir John Petre, Lord Paget, the Earls of Worcester and Northumberland, and Baron Lumley. Byrd lived dangerously in dangerous times and he was eventually excommunicated, although had he not been Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, his fate could have been considerably worse.
One of the motets in the Cantiones sacrae of 1591 is Infelix ego, a setting of words written by the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola the night before he was hanged for heresy in Florence in 1498. The text clearly resonated deeply for the composer: ‘Unhappy I, where shall I turn? On earth I find no refuge: have mercy upon me, O God!’ For some, this transparently personal statement of his Catholicism (set to feverishly intense music) makes Infelix ego Byrd’s finest work.
In 1591 Byrd brought together over 30 of his keyboard pieces and made them into a manuscript collection – My Lady Nevell’s Book. This fine collection, along with another 100 surviving keyboard works, shows Byrd to have had a real mastery of the keyboard. Preludes, grounds, variations, fancies, pavans, galliards and other dances testify to a gifted practitioner who was able to write inspired keyboard music irrespective of the genre. After My Lady Nevell’s Book, he embarked on his riskiest venture thus far – the publication of the Masses for Three, Four, and Five Voices. These settings were clearly intended for performance in illegal celebrations of the Roman Catholic rite by recusants. A decade later, he continued to publish music for the Roman rite in his 1605 and 1607 volumes of Gradualia – over 100 items to be sung at specific liturgical events throughout the year.
A final volume of English vocal music from 1611 was entitled Psalms, Songs, and Sonetts. The title goes on to describe these pieces as being ‘framed to the life of the words’, neatly summing up why Byrd was the pre-eminent English vocal composer of his day.