William Byrd (c1543-1623)

Very little is known about William Byrd’s early life. We cannot even be certain where, or in which year he was born. His will, written in November 1622, ‘in the 80th yeare of myne age’ would suggest that his birth year was probably 1543. He may have been born in Lincoln(shire), the place of his first appointment – Byrd was a common name in those parts at that time. However, there was a gentleman singer of the Chapel Royal in the 1540s called Thomas Byrd who may have been his father, as he undoubtedly acquired a very thorough musical education in a very short time. He was a pupil of Tallis at the Chapel Royal at some point (we don’t know when) and some of the early motets attributed to him are entirely compatible with the Sarum Rite, which suggests a presence in the south of England. In 1563, whilst probably still in his teens, he was appointed as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, where he took responsibility for the educational duties of the choristers as well as music for the services in the cathedral. In 1570 he was admitted as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, although it wasn’t until 1573 that he actually left Lincoln, by now with a wife and two children, to take up this position. The Dean and Chapter at Lincoln obviously thought highly of his compositional skills because they continued to pay him a quarter of his salary for several years after he had left, in return for ‘church songes and services for singing’, presumably to be sent back to Lincoln from London at regular intervals. Compositions from the Lincoln period include church music in a number of styles, sacred and secular songs for voice and lute, music for keyboard, and Pavans and Galliards for instrumental consorts. In 1575 Byrd was appointed joint organist of the Chapel Royal with Tallis – his former teacher and some thirty-eight or so years his senior. Byrd very quickly became well-acquainted in London, rubbing shoulders with minor royalty, Elizabethan aristocracy and nobility, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy. As previously mentioned, in 1575 he and Tallis were granted one of a handful of lucrative royal patents by Elizabeth I to print music.

The 1580s was a difficult time for Byrd and his family, as it was for all staunch English Catholics. The Elizabethan persecutions were gaining momentum and it was a legal obligation to attend regular Anglican worship. Both Byrd and his wife were cited for recusancy (failure to attend Anglican worship) and subjected to crippling fines. Byrd’s influence and powerful friends were very helpful to him, and a string of anthems and sacred pieces in English published at this time would have provided a useful counter-balance, although eventually his membership of the Chapel Royal was suspended for this lack of compliance. Further collections of sacred Latin music followed in the years 1589 and 1591, and the 3, 4 and 5 part Latin Masses were written in 1593, 1592 and 1595 respectively. With the death of Tallis in 1585 Byrd was left in sole possession of the publishing patent, a source of considerable income, and shortly afterwards moved out of London to a village in Essex called Stondon Massey. Here he joined a secret Catholic society which held regular undercover celebrations of the Mass. Byrd wrote music for these occasions. Much of this music was published in two books called Gradualia 1 and Gradualia 2 in 1605 and 1607. The combined collections consist of 109 Latin motets, for all seasons of the Christian year, and on numerous Catholic themes. This was risky behaviour, and there are reports of people in London being arrested merely for being in possession of a copy of the Gradualia. Byrd’s final publication, in 1614, was a set of four sacred songs, for voice and lute, in English. He died in Stondon Massey in 1623, a man of some considerable means according to his will, which also requested that he be buried in the parish church yard, although his grave has never been located. After his death his English sacred music enjoyed a popular revival, although the Latin motets and masses were not heard of again until the mid-nineteenth-century when the Musical Antiquarian Society, formed in 1840 to promote the music of early English composers, began publishing them.

The so called ‘Great Service’, from which the present Te Deum is taken, was probably written sporadically between about 1590 and 1606. The first mention we have of it is in 1606. It consists of a Venite, Te Deum, Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, Kyrie and Credo, all in English. In other words – music for an Anglican Matins, Eucharist and Evensong, such as would have been the daily round of services in the Chapel Royal. The Great Service, so called because it is an extensive work, being scored for two 5 part choirs at its largest point, is highly contrapuntal and imitative. The ever-changing textures and antiphony between upper and lower voices owe much to the brilliant polyphony of the Venetian / Byzantine style of the High Renaissance. The counterpoint is wonderfully flexible, exhilarating and alternates freely between different sections of the choir. The music was lost for many years but was rediscovered in the library of Durham Cathedral in 1922. The sheer scale of it suggests that it was written for great state occasions in the Chapel Royal. Modern performances are usually given a cappella, or with organ accompaniment, but there is evidence that Byrd envisaged much larger forces with cornetts, sackbutts, and organs in the tradition of the rich Venetian style.

Bryd wrote a good deal of keyboard music, including many Pavans and Galliards, which were dances meant to be played in pairs, the first being in slow duple time and the second in fast triple time. A contemporary document by Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) states: “The most principall and chiefest kind of music which is made without a dittie is the fantasie, that is when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth it and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shal seem best in his own conceit". Preludes and fantasies (often called fancies) were sometimes used to check out the tuning and regulation of an instrument at the start of a performance.