William Byrd MP3, CDs & Vinyl, Music of William Byrd

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William Byrd: Overview

William Byrd: William Byrd (b. Lincolnshire, 1543; d. Stondon Massey, Essex, 4 July 1623).

William Byrd, one of England's greatest composers, was appointed organist of Lincoln Cathedral on the 27th February 1563, at about the age of twenty. In 1568 he married Juliana Birley, and their two eldest children, Elizabeth and Christopher, were born and baptised in Lincoln. In February 1570, William Byrd was appointed Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, succeeding Robert Parsons, but retained his organist's position at Lincoln for a further two years. At the end of 1572, he moved to London and became joint organist of the Chapel Royal with Thomas Tallis. According to Anthony a Wood, William Byrd was 'bred up to musick under Thomas Tallis'. We have no means of telling if this was before the Lincoln appointment, but we do know that the composers were closely associated from 1575, the year in which they were jointly granted a virtual monopoly of music printing by licence of Queen Elizabeth. Their first publication was a set of Cantiones Sacrae, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, which appeared in 1575 and contained seventeen motets by each composer. The printing monopoly proved to be less remunerative than they had hoped, and so the composers petitioned again remarking that Tallis was by now 'verie aged' and that William Byrd had sacrificed a good living at Lincoln to come to London. The petition was successful, and the Queen granted them a lucrative lease.

In 1577 William Byrd moved to Harlington, a village in west Middlesex, and it seems likely that his wife Juliana died while they were living there. He moved from Harlington to Stondon Massey, near Ongar in Essex, in 1593 and remarried at about the same time. His second wife, Ellen, died in 1605. William Byrd spent the remainder of his life at Stondon and died on the 4th July 1623. The burial registers have not survived, but there is no reason to think that he died elsewhere.

Throughout his life, William Byrd remained committed to the Catholic traditions: we know that his settings were used at recusant services. Father William Weston, in the Autobiography of an Elizabethan, writes:

"The following day we left the city and went out nearly thirty miles to the home of a catholic gentleman, a close friend of mine. ... In the house was a chapel, set aside for the celebration of the church's offices. The gentleman was a skilled musician, and there were an organ, other musical instruments, and choristers both male and female. During those eight days it was just as if we were celebrating the octave of some great feast. ... Mr Byrd the very famous musician and organist was among the company."

William Byrd, however, retained his position unmolested at the Chapel Royal, and indeed made a substantial contribution to the music of the English Church, including such masterpieces as The Great Service and the anthem Sing Joyfully.

William Byrd was held in very great respect by his contemporaries - Nicholas Yonge in the Preface for Musica Transalpina refers to him as 'A Great Maister of Musicke', and Thomas Morley in his Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke insists that William Byrd should 'never without reverence be named of the musicians'.

William Byrd's compositional output was immense. A great deal of his music has survived in manuscript and several collections of his works were published during his lifetime. The Cantiones Sacrae of 1575 were followed by two further collections bearing the same title (in 1 589 and 1 59 1 respectively). The volume of Psalmes, Sonets, and songs of Sadnes and Pietie of 1588 (the same year as Yonge's Musica Transalpina) is particularly valuable for the 'Reasons briefly set downe by th' auctor to perswade eueryone to learne to singe.' We read that 'There is not any Musicke of Instruments whatsoeuer, comparable to that which is made of the voyces of men.' On a slightly less elevated level we learn that singing 'is a singular good remedie for a stutting and stamering in the speech'.

A collection of Songs of Sundrie natures, some of grauitie and others of mirth appeared in 1589, and juxtaposes madrigalian pieces with psalms and anthems, the latter including the delightful 'Carowle for Christmas Day', An Earthly Tree. The two books of Gradualia published in 1605 and 1607 respectively, consist of a complete cycle of motets for the Church's year, and contain some of William Byrd's most beautiful music, for instance: Justorum animae, O Sacrum convivium, Haec Dies and Non vos relinquam. William Byrd's final publication Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets, which appeared in 1611, is a collection of madrigals and anthems, and also includes two string fantasias. It is not possible to establish the actual date of composition of William Byrd's three Latin Masses (to three, four, and five voices). They were published in his lifetime without any title pages, and none of the surviving copies are dated.

William Byrd's instrumental music, which is of considerable importance, includes viol fantasias many of which are in the form of 'in nomines', and a large amount of music for the virginals - some one hundred and forty pieces in all. Much of his keyboard music is included in My Ladye Nevelis Virginal Booke (1591) and the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. He particularly excelled in dance and song variations, notable examples of which are the Queenes Alman, Wolsey's Wilde, La Volta, and the monumental Quadran Paven and Galliard, all of which may be found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.

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