William Byrd

From Wind Repertory Project
William Byrd


William Byrd (birth date variously given as c. 1540, Lincolnshire, England or 1543 – 4 July 1623, Stondon Massey, Essex, England) was an English composer of the Renaissance. He wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard (the so-called Virginalist school), and consort music. He produced sacred music for use in Anglican services, although he himself became a Roman Catholic in later life and wrote Catholic sacred music as well.

There is no documentary evidence concerning Byrd's early musical training. His two brothers were choristers at St. Paul's Cathedral, and Byrd may have been a chorister there as well under Simon Westcote, although it is possible that he was a chorister with the Chapel Royal. According to Anthony Wood, Byrd was "bred up to musick under Tho. Tallis." Moreover, one of Byrd's earliest compositions was a collaboration with two Chapel Royal singing-men, John Sheppard and William Mundy, on a setting for four male voices of the psalm In exitu Israel for the procession to the font in Easter week. It was probably composed near the end of the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (1553–1558), who revived Sarum liturgical practices.

A few other compositions by Byrd should probably be assigned to his teenage years. These include his setting of the Easter responsory Christus resurgens which was not published until 1605, but which as part of the Sarum liturgy could also have been composed during Mary's reign. Some of the hymns and antiphons for keyboard and for consort may also date from this period, though it is also possible that the consort pieces may have been composed in Lincoln for the musical training of choirboys.

Byrd's first known professional employment was his appointment in 1563 as organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral. Residing at 6 Minster Yard Lincoln, he remained in post until 1572.

The 1560s were also important formative years for Byrd the composer. His Short Service, an unpretentious setting of items for the Anglican Matins, Communion and Evensong services, which seems to have been designed to comply with the Protestant reformers’ demand for clear words and simple musical textures, may well have been composed during the Lincoln years. It is at any rate clear that Byrd was composing Anglican church music, for when he left Lincoln the Dean and Chapter continued to pay him at a reduced rate on condition that he would send the cathedral his compositions.

Byrd had also taken serious strides with instrumental music. The seven In Nomine settings for consort, at least one of the consort fantasias nd a number of important keyboard works have been assigned to the Lincoln years.

Byrd obtained the prestigious post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 following the death of Robert Parsons. Almost from the outset Byrd is named as 'organist', which however was not a designated post but an occupation for any Chapel Royal member capable of filling it. This career move vastly increased Byrd's opportunities to widen his scope as a composer and also to make contacts at Court.

Byrd's commitment to the Catholic cause found expression in his motets, of which he composed about 50 between 1575 and 1591. Byrd's output of about 470 compositions amply justifies his reputation as one of the great masters of European Renaissance music. Perhaps his most impressive achievement as a composer was his ability to transform so many of the main musical forms of his day and stamp them with his own identity. Having grown up in an age in which Latin polyphony was largely confined to liturgical items for the Sarum rite, he assimilated and mastered the Continental motet form of his day, employing a highly personal synthesis of English and continental models. He virtually created the Tudor consort and keyboard fantasia, having only the most primitive models to follow. He also raised the consort song, the church anthem and the Anglican service setting to new heights. Finally, despite a general aversion to the madrigal, he succeeded in cultivating secular vocal music in an impressive variety of forms in his three sets of 1588, 1589 and 1611.

Byrd enjoyed a high reputation among English musicians, especially in the earlier stages of his career. Despite the failure of the Cantiones of 1575 some of his other collections sold well, while Elizabethan scribes such as the Oxford academic Robert Dow, the Windsor lay clerk John Baldwin, and a school of scribes working for the Norfolk country gentleman Sir Edward Paston copied his music extensively.

Keyboard music formed one of Byrd's main compositional endeavors, and the fruit of these labors provided the impulse for an entire school of Elizabethan keyboard composition. Most of these works were intended for performance at the virginal, a relative of the harpsichord in many timbral and mechanical aspects. Although Byrd's keyboard works first appear in the 1570s, they only circulated in manuscript until the publication of My Ladye Nevells Booke (1591) and Parthenia (1611). However, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book languished in obscurity until 1899 before receiving publication. This collection comprises the largest set of Byrd's keyboard works - around seventy - and is also regarded as England's foremost collection of keyboard works. All of the movements Gordon Jacob set in William Byrd Suite have the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book as their source.

Although Byrd had a major reputation in England during his lifetime, his music was in many respects curiously uninfluential. The native virginal school to which he had contributed so much went into sharp decline with a number of deaths in the 1620s and never recovered. Ironically in view of Byrd's own religious beliefs, it was his Anglican church music which came closest to establishing a continuous tradition, at least in the sense that some of it continued to be performed in choral foundations after the Restoration and into the eighteenth century.

Works for Winds