William Byrd, (born 1539/40,
London, England—died July 4, 1623, Stondon Massey, Essex,
England), English organist and composer of the Shakespearean
age who is best known for his development of the English
madrigal. He also wrote virginal and organ music that
elevated the English keyboard style.
Of Byrd’s origins and early life in London little is known.
He was a pupil and protégé of the organist and composer
Thomas Tallis, and his first authenticated appointment was
as organist at Lincoln Cathedral (1563). In 1572 he returned
to London to take up his post as a gentleman of the Chapel
Royal, where he shared the duties of organist with Tallis.
The close personal and
professional relationship between the two men had important
musical consequences. In 1575 Elizabeth I granted them a
joint monopoly for the importing, printing, publishing, and
sale of music and the printing of music paper. The first
work under their imprint appeared in that year—a collection
of Cantiones sacrae dedicated to the queen; of the 34
motets, Tallis contributed 16 and Byrd 18.
In 1577 Byrd and his family
moved to Harlington, Middlesex. As a devout lifelong Roman
Catholic, he probably preferred the greater privacy of
living outside London. Yet, in spite of his close social
contact with many other Catholics, some of whom were
certainly implicated in treasonable activities, his own
loyalty to the government was never questioned.
The death of Tallis in 1585
may have prompted Byrd to set his musical house in order,
for in the next three years he published four collections of
his own music: Psalmes, Sonets, & Songs of Sadnes and Pietie
(1588), Songs of Sundrie Natures (1589), and two further
books of Cantiones sacrae (1589 and 1591). The two secular
volumes were dedicated, respectively, to Sir Christopher
Hatton, the lord chancellor, and to Henry Carey, 1st Baron
Hunsdon, the lord chamberlain and first cousin to the queen.
Both volumes of motets were dedicated to prominent
Catholics: Edward Somerset, 4th earl of Worcester, a great
friend and patron of Byrd’s, whose loyalty to the crown was
unimpeachable, and John Lumley, 1st Baron Lumley. Also in
1591 a manuscript volume of Byrd’s keyboard music was
prepared for “my Ladye Nevell” (probably Elizabeth, wife of
Sir Henry Neville), and many more keyboard pieces found
their way into the early 17th-century volume known as the
Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, copied by another well-known
Catholic, Francis Tregian, during his imprisonment in the
About 1593 Byrd moved with
his family to Stondon Massey, Essex, where he lived for the
rest of his life. At the accession of James I, the
Catholics’ prospects temporarily brightened, and this
probably prompted Byrd’s next three publications. In his
collection of three masses and two books of Gradualia (1605
and 1607), he attempted to single-handedly provide a basic
liturgical repertory, comprising music for the Ordinary
(i.e., the unvarying parts of the mass) and for the Proper
(i.e., the parts of the mass that vary according to the day
or the feast) of all main feasts. It is significant that the
dedicatees of both books of Gradualia were prominent
Catholics ennobled within the first years of James’s reign:
Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, and John Petre, 1st Baron
Petre, another close friend of Byrd’s. One further
publication came from Byrd, the Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets
of 1611, containing English sacred and secular music.
Byrd’s musical stature can hardly be overrated. He wrote
extensively for every medium then available except, it
seems, the lute. His virginal and organ music brought the
English keyboard style to new heights and pointed the way to
the achievements of other English composers, such as John
Bull, Giles Farnaby, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Tomkins. In
music for viol consort he also played an extremely important
role, pioneering the development of the freely composed
fantasia, which was to become the most important form of
Jacobean and later composers. Although he admired Italian
madrigals and as a publisher helped introduce them to
England, Byrd’s own secular vocal music is distinctly
conservative; much of it is conceived for the old-fashioned
medium of solo voice accompanied by viol consort, which was
later abandoned by the English madrigalists, with Thomas
Morley (Byrd’s pupil) at their head. Byrd sometimes added
texts to the polyphonic accompaniments of these songs, in
effect making them madrigals.
Byrd’s religious beliefs
did not prevent him from composing a great deal of church
music to English words, most of which has survived only in
manuscript. Although this is of generally high quality, it
cannot be denied that Byrd maintained his highest consistent
level in his Latin sacred music. Of this, the 1589 and 1591
sets of Cantiones sacrae (mostly designed for the private
edification of the Catholic circles Byrd moved in and
therefore unrestricted by liturgical considerations) have an
intensity unrivalled in England and a breadth of scale
unknown on the Continent. Although the Gradualia are
necessarily more concise and superficially more similar to
the work of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Tomás Luis
de Victoria, with which Byrd was well acquainted, closer
examination reveals their real individuality as well as an
astonishingly consistent level of inspiration.
J. Jeremy Noble
Father of English musick
William Byrd was known as "the
father of English musick": he was the last great English
composer of Catholic church music, as well as the first of
the Elizabethan "golden" age of secular music. Under the
Protestant reign of Elizabeth I, many Catholics feared that
they would be persecuted for their faith; Byrd's devout
Catholic beliefs, however, seem to have been largely
tolerated by the Queen, and this despite his close
association with many Catholic recusants (those who refused
to submit to Church of England dictates).
Little is known about
Byrd's early years. He may have been a pupil of Thomas
Tallis in London; the first authenticated records reveal him
as organist and choirmaster at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563. In
1570 he was invited to join the Chapel Royal as a singer,
although he did not actually leave Lincoln to take up his
post until two years later. Even in London he continued to
receive partial pay from the cathedral in return for further
compositions — of Anglican church music. In 1572 he was
appointed organist of the Chapel Royal, a position he
initially shared with Thomas Tallis, and for the next 20
years or so Byrd remained in service at the court. In 1575
he and Tallis were granted a royal monopoly on the printing
and selling of music.
During a period of general
persecution of Catholics in the late 1570s, Byrd moved out
of London with his family, and settled in Harlington,
Middlesex. His wife, Juliana, was listed for refusing to
attend Church of England services, which at that time was
compulsory. In 1581 several Jesuits were executed. Byrd's
house was searched and he was fined for his beliefs, but he
nonetheless remained free. In the 1540s. after Juliana's
death and his second marriage, he moved to Essex, where he
lived for the rest of his life.
Byrd's music was as often
dedicated to prominent Catholics as to Anglican patrons. His
music encompassed both instrumental and vocal works, secular
and sacred, Anglican and Catholic. He usually wrote his
secular vocal music for solo voice accompanied by viol
consort (ensemble), rather than the lute preferred by his
contemporaries. His greatest instrumental music was for the
viol, and he also wrote about 150 pieces - often dance
movements - for keyboards.
Byrd wrote many Anglican
church music settings, including anthems, but his most
sublime music was composed to Latin texts (for the Catholic
Church), such as the motet for four voices, Ave verum
corpus. His three Masses for three, four, and five voices,
use the typical English technique of imitation — melodic
phrases repeated by different voices at various points in a
composition. This technique allowed a great deal of emotion
to be expressed, and in the case of Byrd's Masses — written
for the private use of his fellow Catholics, and relatively
compressed — the emotion was that of a deeply felt religious
belief, a belief under attack: the music is powerful and
austere, yet essentially positive.
A special feature of
the four-part and five-part Masses is Byrd's treatment
of the Agnus Dei, which employ the technique which Byrd
had previously applied to the petitionary clauses from
the motets of the 1589 and 1591 Cantiones sacrae. The
final words dona nobis pacem ('grant us peace'), which
are set to chains of anguished suspensions in the
Four-Part Mass and expressive block homophony in the
five-part setting almost certainly reflect the
aspirations of the troubled Catholic community of the
Agnus Dei, qui tollis
peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.
Lamb of God, who took
away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world, have
mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world, grant
Performed : The Tallis
Dir : Peter Phillips
William Byrd - Miserere mei, Deus
William Byrd - Ne irascaris +
Civitas - Hilliard Ensemble
The Hiliard Ensemble
singing a cappella:
David James - countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump - tenor
John Potter - tenor
Paul Hillier - baritone
Michael George - bass
Ne irascaris Domine
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos.
Be not angry, O
and remember our iniquity no more.
Behold, we are all your people.
- - - -
Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est,
Jerusalem desolata est.
Your holy city has
become a wilderness.
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.
William Byrd - Laudibus in
sanctis. Psalm 150
choir singing a cappella
directed by Donald Hunt.
1 Laudibus in sanctis
Dominum celebrate supremum: Firmamenta sonent inclita
2 Inclita facta Dei cantate, sacraque potentis Voce
potestatem saepe sonate manus.
3 Magnificum Domini
cantet tuba martia nomen: Pieria domino concelebrate
4 Laude Dei resonent resonantia tympana summi: Alta
sacri resonent organa laude Dei.
Hunc arguta canant
tenui psalteria corda, Hunc agili laudet laeta chorea
5 Concava divinas effundant cymbala laudes, Cymbala
dulcisona laude repleta Dei.
6 Omne quod aethereis in mundo vescitur auris Halleluia
canat tempus in omne Deo.
- - - -
Celebrate the Lord most high in holy praises: Let the
firmament echo the glorious deeds of God.
2 Sing ye the glorious deeds of God, and with holy voice
Sound forth oft the power of his mighty hand.:
3 Let the warlike
trumpet sing the great name of the Lord: Celebrate the
Lord with Pierian lyre.
4 Let resounding timbrels ring to the praise of the
most-high God, Lofty organs peal to the praise of the
Him let melodious
psalteries sing with fine string, Him let joyful dance
praise with nimble foot.
5 Let hollow cymbals pour forth divine praises,
Sweet-sounding cymbals filled with the praise of God.
6 Let everything in the world that feeds upon the air of
heaven Sing Halleluia to God for evermore.
William Byrd - Laudibus in
sanctis - Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir
12th International Chamber
Choir Competition Marktoberdorf, Germany,
www.modfestivals.org; June 10-15, 2011; Live recording; This
is a service of Choral Festival Network
The second stage in Byrd's programme of liturgical
polyphony is formed by the Gradualia, two cycles of motets
containing 109 items and published in 1605 and 1607. They
are dedicated to two members of the Catholic nobility, Henry
Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton and Byrd's own patron Sir
John Petre, who had been elevated to the peerage in 1603
under the title Lord Petre of Writtle. The appearance of
these two monumental collections of Catholic polyphony
reflects the hopes which the recusant community must have
harboured for an easier life under the new king James I,
whose mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been a Catholic.
Addressing Petre (who is known to have lent him money to
advance the printing of the collection), Byrd describes the
contents of the 1607 set as 'blooms collected in your own
garden and rightfully due to you as tithes', thus making
explicit the fact that they had formed part of Catholic
religious observances in the Petre household.
The greater part of the two collections consists of settings
of the Proprium Missae for the major feasts of the church
calendar, thus supplementing the Mass Ordinary cycles which
Byrd had published in the 1590s. Normally, Byrd includes the
Introit, the Gradual, the Alleluia (or Tract in Lent if
needed), the Offertory and Communion. The feasts covered
include the major feasts of the Virgin Mary (including the
votive masses for the Virgin for the four seasons of the
church year), All Saints and Corpus Christi (1605) followed
by the feasts of the Temporale (Christmas, Epiphany, Easter,
Ascension, Whitsun and Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (with
additional items for St Peter's Chains and the Votive Mass
of the Blessed Sacrament) in 1607. The verse of the introit
is normally set as a semichoir section, returning to full
choir scoring for the Gloria Patri. Similar treatment
applies to the Gradual verse, which is normally attached to
the opening Alleluia to form a single item. The liturgy
requires repeated settings of the word 'Alleluia', and Byrd
provides a wide variety of different settings forming
brilliantly conceived miniature fantasias which are one of
the most striking features of the two sets. The Alleluia
verse, together with the closing Alleluia, normally form an
item in themselves, while the Offertory and the Communion
are set as they stand.
In the Roman liturgy there are many texts which appear
repeatedly in different liturgical contexts. To avoid having
to set the same text twice, Byrd often resorted to a
cross-reference or 'transfer' system which allowed a single
setting to be slotted into a different place in the liturgy.
Unfortunately, this practice sometimes causes confusion,
partly because normally no rubrics are printed to make the
required transfer clear and partly because there are some
errors which complicate matters still further. A good
example of the transfer system in operation is provided by
the first motet from the 1605 set (Suscepimus Deus a5) in
which the text used for the Introit has to be reused in a
shortened form for the Gradual. Byrd provides a cadential
break at the cut-off point.
The 1605 set also contains a number of miscellaneous items
which fall outside the liturgical scheme of the main body of
the set. As Philip Brett has pointed out, most of the items
from the four- and three-part sections were taken from the
Primer (the English name for the Book of hours) thus falling
within the sphere of private devotions rather than public
worship. These include, inter alia, settings of the four
Marian antiphons from the Roman Rite, four Marian hymns set
a3, a version of the Litany, the gem-like setting of the
Eucharistic hymn Ave verum Corpus, and the Turbarum voces
from the St John Passion, as well as a series of
In stylistic terms the motets of the Gradualia form a sharp
contrast to those of the Cantiones sacrae publications. The
vast majority are shorter, with the discursive imitative
paragraphs of the earlier motets giving place to double
phrases in which the counterpoint, though intricate and
concentrated, assumes a secondary level of importance. Long
imitative paragraphs are the exception, often kept for final
climactic sections in the minority of extended motets. The
melodic writing often breaks into quaver (eighth-note)
motion, tending to undermine the minim (half-note) pulse
with surface detail. Some of the more festive items,
especially in the 1607 set, feature vivid madrigalesque
word-painting. The Marian hymns from the 1605 Gradualia are
set in a light line-by-line imitative counterpoint with
crotchet pulse which recalls the three-part English songs
from Songs of sundrie natures (1589). For obvious reasons,
the Gradualia never achieved the popularity of Byrd's
earlier works. The 1607 set omits several texts, which were
evidently too sensitive for publication in the light of the
renewed anti-Catholic persecution which followed the failure
of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. A contemporary account which
sheds light on the circulation of the music between Catholic
country houses, refers to the arrest of a French Jesuit
named De Noiriche, who was followed from an unidentified
country house by spies, apprehended, searched and found to
be carrying a copy of the 1605 set. Nevertheless, Byrd felt
safe enough to reissue both sets with new title pages in
Christ Church Cathedral Choir,
Oxford - Gradualia - Byrd