top of page
  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Writing for Oriana 2: William Byrd

"Power" is a word much used, and possibly abused, in the English language. In music, what seems to be powerful to some people can be a non-event to others. For me there is undoubted power in much music, but I perhaps find it even more interesting if the man or woman behind the music is themselves powerful. I don't mean politically powerful, but rather or a powerful personality, a person of energy, drive, determination and - perhaps most of all - conviction.

There is a composer who, the more a read about him and the more I listen to his music, convinces me that he had such power. To most music lovers he is a name from the dimmer, more distant parts of music history, but on closer examination this extraordinary musician seems to leap off the page and demand respect. He is the subject of this post; his name is William Byrd.

William Byrd (posthumous portrait)

William Byrd is one of two well-known names from 16th century English music; the other, Thomas Tallis, was the subject of my previous post. A generation younger than Tallis, and yet associated with him professionally for many years, William Byrd in many ways epitomises the struggles of the entire nation as England's political and religious souls intertwined in the late Renaissance. And most importantly of all, Byrd's struggle, and his ability to survive in a hostile world, are reflected in his music.

Tallis was born in the first decade of the 16th century and he lived as an adult through four reigns: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and the first half of Elizabeth I. William Byrd, on the other hand, was born around 1540. This was just a few years before the death of Henry VIII. The short reigns of Edward and Mary took place during Byrd's childhood, so for his professionally active years Byrd lived through the entire forty four and a half year reign of Elizabeth; Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 when Byrd was about 18.

Byrd was born in London and scholars assume he was a boy in the choir of the Chapel Royal. During this time he would have met Tallis, about 35 years his senior, who was an organist at the Chapel Royal and one of England's most illustrious composers.

As with most composers of this period, it's difficult to accurately date most of Byrd's music. But his earliest known works are thought to date from his teens, during the reign of Mary I. Among these is his Christus resurgens, published decades later but believed by most scholars to be a very early work from the mid-1550s, possibly even a student exercise. [listen]

Writing during the reign of Queen Mary, the young Byrd was, theologically at least, on the right side of the fence. While Tallis's personal religious convictions are still open to debate, no such uncertainty exists with regard to Byrd. Byrd was a Catholic and his Catholicism underpinned his entire existence. With the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 Byrd found himself living in two worlds: publicly he expressed his loyalty to the queen and the nation and, as a member of the Chapel Royal, was an integral part of the nation's Protestant heart. This was headed by Elizabeth, who with the Act of Supremacy in 1558 took for herself the title of supreme governor of the church in England and returned England to the Protestant faith of her younger half-brother, Edward VI. The 1558 Act of Uniformity required all English subjects to attend services - and take communion - in an Anglican church. The dilemma for Catholics was clear.

Elizabeth did not seek to persecute Catholics in the way Mary had persecuted Protestants. She famously declared that she would "not make windows into men's souls". But outward conformity to the state church was paramount in an age where politics and religion were largely the same thing. What people believed was not an issue with Elizabeth; she was concerned with what people did.

In 1563, five years into Elizabeth's reign, Byrd was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, about 220 km north of London. At about the age of only about 23, this was a huge step up the professional ladder for the young musician. Personally, though, it was inevitable that there would be conflict. Despite Elizabeth's personal taste in matters of religion - which leaned towards the "high church" practices that permitted crucifixes, vestments and elaborate music (occasionally even in Latin) - the pervading mood in the Anglican church early in Elizabeth's reign was far more Puritan. Lincoln was run on strictly pared-back lines, musically, and Byrd's music for Lincoln, including the well-known Short Service, reflects this. [listen]

Lincoln Cathedral

Quite apart from sacred music, Byrd began to write in several other genres during his years in Lincoln, genres which would continue to occupy him for most of his life. For example, he was one of the first composers to devote considerable energies into creating a body of mostly secular keyboard music. About 130 such works by Byrd survive - some small, some large - and these pieces reflect a wide array of styles and forms popular at the time. The Fantasia in A minor is believed to be among the keyboard works written by Byrd while he was in Lincoln. [listen]

Another form of music to which Byrd contributed much was the consort song. This featured a single vocal line accompanied by a four-part ensemble of viols. The earlier examples in Byrd's output are very straightforward; indeed some, like Triumph with pleasant melody, have even been described by some as "elementary and drab" but I think that's a bit harsh... [listen]

In 1568 Byrd married Julian Birley and the couple eventually had five children: two sons and three daughters.

In 1569 Byrd found himself in dispute with the Lincoln cathedral chapter. As a known Catholic he would always have been under suspicion, but in this case it seems that his organ playing was regarded as far too elaborate. This is but one of the earliest examples in Byrd's life of him being in disputes of various sorts; he was regularly involved in legal action throughout his life, and not just in matters relating to music. And in all these his absolute conviction and stubbornness is always evident.

The dispute over his organ playing was regarded as so serious that for a time his salary was stopped. It was eventually resolved, but it was clear that Byrd's long-term prospects lay elsewhere.

It wouldn't be until 1575 that Byrd - with Tallis - would publish his first major collection of sacred music, but it is evident that some of these works were written earlier while he was in Lincoln. One such work is believed to be the setting of Libera me, Domine. This text - "Deliver me, oh Lord, from eternal death" - may very well be one of the earliest examples of Byrd setting words which relate to his personal circumstances. Clearly he wasn't happy with the job in Lincoln. [listen]

In 1570 Byrd started to reconnect with the Chapel Royal and London's musical life. In 1572 he was sworn in as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, but in 1573 there was evidence that Lincoln was sorry to lose him. In that year Byrd entered into an agreement with Lincoln to continue to provide them with occasional works for the cathedral, even though he was no longer working there. For this he received a quarter of his former salary, and the cathedral chapter appointed his successor at a lower salary than Byrd had received, clearly so they could continue these payments to Byrd. This arrangement lasted another eight years, until 1581.

In the meantime, in London, Byrd showed his knack of getting in with the right people and associating himself with powerful patrons. His publications were dedicated to various powerful members of the nobility - mostly Catholics - who became his protectors. But chief among those who supported him was the queen herself.

Elizabeth was a skilled musician and extraordinarily well-educated. She loved Byrd's music and like everyone else would have known he was Catholic. The queen was also a shrewd politician and to have a few prominent Catholics in her court made it clear to her European enemies that she was tolerant; it was good PR in other words. It also seems that the queen personally intervened whenever Byrd was charged with recusancy. Recusancy was a refusal to attend Anglican services, a charge punishable by a fine, and while there are many records showing Byrd was charged with recusancy, there is no evidence that he was ever made to actually pay the fine.

In 1575 Byrd and Tallis were given one of the first licences to print and publish music in England, a license awarded them by Elizabeth herself. Their first publication, released that year, was called Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur. These days it is usually referred to as the Cantiones sacrae, or "sacred songs", of 1575. The publication was dedicated to the queen and contains 34 Latin motets, 17 by Tallis and 17 by Byrd, in recognition of the fact that 1575 was the 17th year of the queen's reign.

Anon: Elizabeth I (the "Armada" portrait, c.1588)

Byrd's contributions to the publication include older works (such as the Libera me heard earlier) but the new works are stunning in their brilliance and technique. Byrd chose expressive, often penitential texts to set, and several could be chosen as examples of his developing power as a composer. This is Emendemus in melius, an exhortation to holiness and a plea to God for mercy. The setting is entirely homophonic - that is, the parts all sing the same words at the same time - but Byrd's harmonic language is intense. This motet was placed first in the collection and it was widely copied by others. [listen]

The question arises as to how Byrd and Tallis could get away with such an apparently Catholic publication during Elizabeth's reign. Where would such music be performed at that time when there was a distinct dislike for Latin in church and an official church which had services in English? It would stand to reason that at least some of these motets would have been performed in the Chapel Royal for the queen's private services. Elizabeth loved Latin church music and even within English language services it was permitted to include Latin motets at certain points. The queen's approval of the publication instantly protected Tallis and especially Byrd from any repercussions which might have followed from publishing the Cantiones sacrae of 1575.

The period from 1575 to 1591 marked Byrd's greatest and most creative period as a composer, but it also marked one the most stormy and unsettling periods for Catholics in England. The constant fear of invasion from Europe, the actions of Catholic spies in England, and the illegal activities of priests made Protestants highly suspicious, if not paranoid. Priests - especially Jesuits - were active in England in ministering to Catholics, and Byrd openly identified with Jesuit activity in England at this time. He trod a very fine line and you can hear it in his music.

The torture and execution of the convert Catholic priest Edmund Campion in 1581 gave English Catholics a prominent martyr. Byrd expressed his feelings, and those of all English Catholics, in a motet - Deus venerunt gentes - later published in the Cantiones sacrae of 1598. The text, from Psalm 78, laments the heathen domination of Jerusalem. The holy temple is defiled, the servants of God are murdered, their blood is poured out and the faithful have become a disgrace to their neighbours. Such were the feelings of English Catholics under Elizabeth in the 1580s. In Campion they had their martyr, and in Byrd they had their champion. [listen]

Edmund Campion

Byrd's Latin music at the time is regularly infused with these images. Jerusalem is seen as a metaphor for England, and the victory of Israel's enemies or the Babylonian captivity are seen as metaphors for the oppression of Catholics under Elizabeth. And Byrd's music speaks of this anguish in no uncertain terms when setting such texts. One of the most poignant in the 1589 publication in Tristitia et anxietas: "Sorrow and anxiety have taken hold of my innermost being..." [listen]

The most dangerous music Byrd composed was in direct response to Campion's execution. A poem was written by Henry Walpole to mourn Campion's death and Byrd set it to music, an act which could in the minds of many be regarded as treason. Why do I use my paper, ink and penne? is set in the form of a consort song, and the final stanza's reference to "his quartered limbs" leaves no doubt as to the subject of the poem, or the focus of Byrd's sympathies. [listen]

The Catholic forces in Europe sought an excuse to invade England, and many Catholics in England itself saw their only hope in the person of Mary Queen of Scots, who had been under house arrest in England since the late 1560s. Mary allowed herself to be implicated in plans to murder Elizabeth and was executed in 1586; many prominent Catholics were executed for treason at the time as well. Fears of the invasion from Europe were materialised in 1588 with Philip II of Spain (who was Elizabeth's brother-in-law; he had been married to her half sister and predecessor) taking the death of Mary as his cue to avenge the Catholic cause. The Spanish armada was defeated by the English - and the weather, which the English naturally saw as God fighting on their side - and Elizabeth reached the peak of her power, influence and popularity.

Armada Medal, with the motto "Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt" (Jehovah blew and they were scattered)

One can only imagine Byrd's feelings on being commissioned by the queen to set to music a text she herself wrote in praise of God at the defeat of the Spanish forces. The consort song, Look and bow down, only survives today in a lute arrangement, but Elizabeth clearly wanted to make sure Byrd knew who called the shots. Literally.

In the same year as the Armada - 1588 - Byrd published a collection called Psalmes, Sonets and Songs of Sadnes and Pietie. A mixture of sacred and secular music, the collection contains some earlier consort songs arranged for five voices, with texts added to what were originally the four accompanying viol parts. This was to capitalise on the current craze for madrigals. Byrd's publication labels the original solo voice part as the "first singing part", making it clear the lower voice parts were originally for viols. [listen]

A similarly mixed sacred/secular collection was published a year later in 1589 called Songs of Sundrie Natures. It contains an eloquent tribute to Byrd's older colleague and business partner, Thomas Tallis, who had died in 1585. Ye sacred muses is subtitled "Elegy on the death of Thomas Tallis" and it ends with the heartbreaking line, "Tallis is dead, and Music dies". [listen]

Around 1590 Byrd produced a slim volume with three Mass settings. The Byrd Masses - one for three voices, one for four voices and one for five voices - are among his best-known works today but they were radical for the time. For a start, no-one since Tallis decades before had published a Mass setting in England; Byrd had to almost reinvent the English Catholic Mass. English Masses up to that point did not set the Kyrie (whereas Masses on the Continent routinely started with a Kyrie). Byrd's three masses, which are elegant, restrained and austere, all start with Kyries; here is the Kyrie to the five-part Mass. [listen]

In 1591 Byrd produced another stunning volume of Latin motets, also entitled Cantiones Sacrae. It contains one of the greatest sacred works of the 16th century, Infelix ego, setting a text by Savonarola which paraphrases Psalm 50. The words are appropriate to the Catholic-in-Elizabethan-England subtext, being the lament of one abandoned in the world and in need of the support only God can give. Byrd's harmonic language is passionate, positive yet at the same time desperate for resolution. [listen]

Byrd's Masses and the later Latin church music had little place in Elizabeth's world. He was probably writing for clandestine Catholic worship in England and possibly for the Catholic church music market on the Continent. Before leaving London in 1593, Byrd wrote two more monumental works, the keyboard collection called My Lady Nevells Booke and the pinnacle of his Anglican church music, the Great Service.

My Lady Nevells Booke wasn't published; Byrd compiled its 42 pieces - comprising some three and a half hours of music! - into a manuscript. It is a compendium of his keyboard music dedicated to Elizabeth Bacon, third wife of Sir Henry Nevell. [listen]

The Great Service, probably written in the early 1590s, is a grandiose ten-part setting of the major canticles from the Anglican prayer book. [listen]

In 1593 Byrd left London and moved to Stondon Massey in Essex. Being in his early 50s he may have been considering a sort of semi-retirement but his composing and publishing continued. He also moved into an area of England with strong and powerful Catholic connections, coming under the protection of the powerful Catholic family of Sir John Petre. It's clear that away from London, Byrd and his family could more easily practice their faith with like-minded people; Petre even kept a priest on his staff.

In 1603 the Elizabethan age, and the Tudor line, came to an end with the death of Elizabeth I. The accession of James VI of Scotland - the Protestant son of Mary Queen of Scots - as James I of England meant that Catholics largely found their situation unchanged with regard to the legal status or otherwise of their religion. In 1605 Byrd published the first of two volumes of Gradualia, Mass Propers which were required for a range of feast days throughout the liturgical year. This most Catholic of publications was hastily withdrawn later in the year after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the attempt to assassinate James I.

James I (c. 1605)

Things had calmed down enough by 1607 for Byrd to publish a second volume of Gradualia, although some texts regarded as too sensitive for publication were omitted. He reissued both volumes in 1610.

We'll end with some much-loved music from the Gradualia, music which, like much else in Byrd's life, bravely and without compromise nails his Catholic colours to the mast. Byrd was a consummate artist both in music and in politics, managing to remain faithful to his convictions in dangerous times while still serving his country and its Protestant rulers. He had the power I spoke of earlier, the power to remain steadfast and to express what he needed to express, even though it put him under suspicion and made him an outsider.

This was evident even at Byrd's death, which took place on 4 July 1623 at Stondon Massey. He was about 83 and in his will he declared first and foremost that he had died in the Catholic faith in which he was born and in which he lived. And, we might add, in which he produced some of the finest and most powerful music there is. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2012.

160 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page