Five essential works by William Byrd

We choose the greatest pieces by Queen Elizabeth's Catholic composer, William Byrd


William Byrd (c1540-1623) was one of the finest composers of the Tudor period. Though a Catholic who plied his trade during the reign of the Protestant Elizabeth I – a notoriously fraught era for those on the wrong side of the religious divide – he was so highly rated by the Queen that she gave him (along with Thomas Tallis, a fellow Catholic) an exclusive licence to publish music.


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. Here are five of the finest examples…

My Lady Nevell’s Virginal Book

Dating from 1591, this extraordinary compilation of 42 of Byrd’s finest keyboard pieces includes ‘The Battell’, a descriptive piece written in response to the Irish Rebellions.

Recommended recording:
Elizabeth Farr (harpsichord)
Naxos 8570139-41

The Great Service

Widely thought to be Byrd’s finest liturgical music, the Great Service is a highly inventive, dramatic and colourful score for ten-part choir.

Recommended recording:
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
Gimell CDGIM011

Consort Songs

These intricate works combine voice and viols in magical union, the latter not simply a vocal accompaniment; they provide counterpoint-rich music of their own.

Recommended recording:
Emma Kirkby & Fretwork
Harmonia Mundi HMU907383

Haec dies

Taken from Book II of the Cantiones Sacrae (Sacred Songs), Byrd plays beautifully with rhythm, changing constantly between two- and three-time. There’s sprightly interplay between vocal parts too.

Recommended recording:
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
Coro COR16077

Ave verum

Four minutes of choral heaven. Byrd carresses the words with his most beautiful and, in many ways, his most simple music.


Recommended recording:
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
Gimell CDGIM345