William Byrd

c. 1539 1623

William Byrd



William Byrd was a renowned English Renaissance composer credited with the development of the English madrigal. His virginal and organ music contributed to the rise of English keyboard music. His conservative style paved the way for composers such asJohn Bull, Giles Farnaby, Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Tompkins.

Byrd’s exact birthdate is not known, but he was born sometime between the autumn of 1539 and the autumn of 1540 in London, one of seven children born to Thomas and Margery Byrd. Documents show that William’s older brothers, Symond and John, sang in the choir at St Paul’s cathedral in London, though it is also possible that William also sang there. In any case, all three boys began their musical training around the age of seven. St Paul’s cathedral shared close musical ties with the Chapel Royal, where Tallis held a post of composer and organist.

William Byrd studied with Thomas Tallis, most likely composition and organ, and had the opportunity to play for choir rehearsals as the assistant organist. During this period, Byrd composed a number of two-part hymns and antiphons for organ, motets and also contributed toexitu Israel together with John Sheppard and Thomas Mundy. His part of the work,Similes illis fiant, was later published separately in 1605.

Byrd relocated to Lincoln in 1563, where he was appointed organist and choirmaster at the cathedral. In 1568 he married Julian Birley of Lincolnshire, with whom he had five children who survived infancy, one of which was the godson of Thomas Tallis.

Byrd was suspended in 1670 from his church duties, most likely due to the Protestant-Catholic tensions which could have deemed it unacceptable that Byrd, a Roman Catholic, was stretching the limits of the Anglican style during his organ playing at the services. During his suspension, he devoted his time to composing. Many of his keyboard fantasias date from this time.

In addition, Byrd began to preserve his music in collections. Works from his time in Lincoln include many English consort songs,Clarifica me, Pater for organ, the virginalThe Hunt’s Up and the viol concert of the In Nomine settings based on the plainchant GloriaTibi Trinitas. It is also likely that a number of his motets, includingLibera me, Domine, de morte aeterna and Attollite portas, were composed while in Lincoln, though they were published in later years. These motets were highly influenced by the Italian polyphonic style, as exemplified by Alfonso Ferrabosco, a composer at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Byrd’s liturgical settingThe Short Service was also composed during this period.

Byrd left Lincoln in 1572 to become the “Gentleman of the Chapel” in London at the Chapel Royal, replacing the composer Robert Parsons who had just died. Though he was now employed by the Chapel Royal, he was able to convince the Lincoln Cathedral to continue making payments to him, allowing him to continue providing music for them until 1581.

In London, Byrd sang, likely as a counter-tenor, in addition to playing organ and composing. His compositions from this period include both sacred and secular works, most notably the pavanes and galliards for keyboard. He also became acquainted with many noblemen, mostly Catholics, who also became his patrons. Many of these men were executed or exiled due to the political situation, including the Earl of Northumberland and Thomas the Lord Paget.

Despite the rise of anti-Catholicism and frequent criticism, he was considered loyal to the queen. The queen was very fond of Byrd and secured a 21-year patent and monopoly for music printing and manuscript paper for Byrd and Tallis. Together, they published a collection of their motets,Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, with a dedication to the queen. Unfortunately, the book did not fare well.

Byrd showed his disgust with the current political situation through his compositions. For example, the Latin motetDeus, venerunt gentes uses text that supports the Catholic recusants and the setting of the poemWhy do I use my paper, ink and pen, which was used to protest the execution of three Jesuits. The setting was later published in a tamer version.

Though Byrd disagreed on a personal level with the anti-Catholicism movement, he continued to compose for the Church of England, dedicated works to important anti-Catholics (including Queen Elizabeth I) and composed theAnglican Great Service.

After the death of Thomas Tallis in 1585, Byrd focused on the printing business while retiring slowly from the Chapel Royal. Tallis’ death led Byrd to collect and publish his own works, including the third book of English songs ever printed,Psalmes, sonets and songs of sadness and pietie (1588). The book was a great success and was followed bySongs of Sundrie Natures (1589). Both books contain consort songs, arrangements of the songs and anthems. He published his first volume of motets for five voicesCantiones sacrae (1589) and completed a manuscript ofMy Ladye Nevells Booke (1591) which featured many keyboard works. During the next decade he also published three masses.

In 1605, Byrd published his first volume of Gradualia, ac cantiones sacrae, which contained 63 vocal works for Catholic worship dedicated to the Earl of Northampton. On the surface, the music contained in this book is similar to that of Palestrina and Tomás Luis de Victoria. Unfortunately for Byrd, the same year saw an increase in anti-Catholic activity due Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot to kill King James I. This resulted in the withdrawal of the book and its ban; people found in possession of the music contained within the book were arrested.

Five years later, both volumes of the book were re-released. The second volume included a dedication to many of his friends and students who had died. Among those students was composer Thomas Morley. Byrd’s other students included Thomas Weelkes, Thomas Tomkins and John Bull. Byrd’s final works include four sacred songs from 1614 includingTeares and Lamentacions of a Sorrowfull Soule.

The final decades of Byrd’s life were filled with death and tragedy. In addition to the death of his pupil Thomas Morley in 1602, his wife died in 1608 or 1609, one of his sons died circa 1615 and his brother John died in 1622. William Byrd died on 4 July 1623 in Stondon Massey, Essex. He is commemorate in the Chapel Royal records a “a father of Musick”.

Ironically enough, although Byrd himself was a Catholic, along with the majority of his patrons, it is his Anglican music that is most often heard today.