William Byrd  
William Byrd
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 Fleet Prison.

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

Encyclopædia Britannica

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.

An Old Epitaph
Non Nobis Domine
Ave Verum Corpus Christi
Aoede Consort
Canto Armonico
Ave verum corpus
Ave verum corpus
Ave verum
Byrd - Ave Verum Corpus
The King's Singers are one of my favrite groups and this beautiful song is one of my favorite pieces. they consist of all guys (even the soprano and alto are guys).
William Byrd - Ave verum corpus

Helsinki Chamber Choir, conducted by Tim Brown
German Church, Helsinki, Finland, 19.3.2011

William Byrd - Ave verum corpus
Sung by the SsAM Choral Scholars on Sunday, February 21, 2010, at the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew in downtown Wilmington, Delaware.
Mass for Four Voices
William Byrd "Agnus Dei - Mass for five voices"

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 1590s.


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 us peace.

Performed : The Tallis Scholars
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 satis,
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos.

Be not angry, O Lord,
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

Worcester Cathedral choir singing a cappella
directed by Donald Hunt.

1 Laudibus in sanctis Dominum celebrate supremum: Firmamenta sonent inclita facta Dei.
2 Inclita facta Dei cantate, sacraque potentis Voce potestatem saepe sonate manus.

3 Magnificum Domini cantet tuba martia nomen: Pieria domino concelebrate lira.
4 Laude Dei resonent resonantia tympana summi: Alta sacri resonent organa laude Dei.

Hunc arguta canant tenui psalteria corda, Hunc agili laudet laeta chorea pede.
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 holy God.:

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 miscellaneous items.
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 1610.

Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford - Gradualia - Byrd

1 - Hymn: Christe redemptor omnium; 2 - Anthiphon: O admirabile Commertium.

Stephen Darlington, director

Ego sum Panis Vivus - William Byrd - Gradualia 1607 (and 1610)
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