An introduction to William Byrd, his greatest works and some of the best recordings of his music

The Odyssean Ensemble's director Colm Carey on the influence of Byrd and the gems to be found within his somewhat neglected output

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William Byrd is one of the finest composers England has ever produced. His array of sacred and secular compositions, intended for both public and private consumption, demonstrate a deeply sophisticated musical mind that perfectly blends the head (technical prowess) and heart (emotional fervour). Byrd’s life, about which much is known, is a microcosm of the many tensions that existed in England through the 16th century. His commitment to the Catholic faith, while serving under a Protestant monarch, created a painful paradox, but this underlying tension is arguably what inspired his greatest music. Despite living in a notoriously fraught era for those working on the wrong side of the religious divide, Byrd was so highly rated by the Queen that she gave him (along with Thomas Tallis, a fellow Catholic) an exclusive licence to publish music.

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Much is known about Byrd’s life. He was very well read and had strong opinions on religion, politics and the arts, which perhaps destined him to be a controversial figure; he could be an extremely difficult man and was often in legal disputes! However, he was universally respected by musicians and non-musicians alike, and was known for his integrity and loyalty.

Byrd was also a collaborator, working on many different projects with others throughout his life. He loved teaching and was an important influence on the generation that followed him; his pupils, as they expressed contemporaneously in their own words, clearly adored him.

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.

The best works by Byrd

Tristitia et anxietas (Cantiones Sacrae, 1589)

Recommended recording: Gallicantus/Gabriel Crouch, director (The Word Unspoken, Signum Classics)

The persecution of Catholics in England intensified during the 1580s and many of Byrd’s friends were directly affected, some losing their lives. The pain, fear and terror that this caused is expressed quietly, though very powerfully, in Tristitia et anxietas, one of Byrd’s most intense and emotive motets.

Fantasia in A minor

Recommended recording: Richard Egarr, harpsichord (One Byrde in Hand, Linn)

Byrd really lets his imagination run wild in this wonderful fantasia, made all the more colourful in this recording by the sharp, incisive temperament of the harpsichord. The piece begins innocently enough, but fantasy soon takes over with the unexpected introduction of runs, cross rhythms, daring harmonies, lively dances and the joy of sheer virtuosity. It is an Elizabethan rollercoaster.

Galliard in Six Parts

Recommended recording: Fretwork (Goe nightly cares – Music by Dowland and Byrd, Virgin Classics)

Dancing was an important part of courtly life and this is a great example of what Elizabeth’s courtiers would have been able to enjoy while passing time with good company.

Magnificat (from the Great Service)

Recommended recording: Odyssean Ensemble/Colm Carey, director (The Great Service and Anthems, Linn)

The publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 fundamentally altered the nature of music required for the liturgy. Out went sumptuous polyphony; in came a rather more austere and syllabic style, with texts in the vernacular. Byrd’s Great Service owes its genesis to this new design, but in characteristic fashion Byrd outplays the new normal and creates a rich and lavish suite of movements for the new liturgical framework from which the Magnificat is a shining example.

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

How music can be used to tell the story of Byrd’s life

Colm Carey is the director of The Odyssean Ensemble, who will perform the music accompanying To Preserve the Health of Man: Five Faces of William Byrd, a five-part series on BBC Radio 3. Here, he explains the role music played in the creation of this programme.

Music plays a vital role in telling the story of Byrd’s life.  In 1605 and 1607 Byrd published two volumes of Gradualia, a large collection containing some 109 pieces, and providing an extraordinary feast of sacred polyphony for a full (catholic) liturgical year. Excerpts from these liturgical cycles provide the musical thread that runs through How to Preserve the Health of Man: Five Faces of William Byrd, with each episode focusing on a particular feast-day and featuring music that links to that feast from the Gradualia.

Each episode explores Byrd’s relationship with a prominent person in his life. These relationships, and the importance of them for Byrd, are illustrated musically through pieces that reflect these characters, either directly or indirectly. You will hear music paying homage to Elizabeth I: a heartfelt consort song composed on the death of Thomas Tallis  (‘..Tallis is dead, and music dies.’), a motet commemorating the brutal execution of Father Edmund Campion, and a beautiful song – ‘See those sweet eyes’ – which might have been written with Byrd’s wife Juliana in mind.

To Preserve the Health of Man: Five Faces of William Byrd will be broadcast daily on BBC Radio 3 from 19-23 July at 10.45pm. The episodes will be available on BBC Sounds after initial broadcast. 

A few of our other favourite Byrd works

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

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

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