William Byrd, Renaissance composer


William Byrd

William Byrd

(from http://home.sprintmail.com/~cwhent/WilliamByrd.html)

Any investigation of the music and life of William Byrd must depend heavily on the writings of E.H. Fellowes, Thurston Dart, Joseph Kerman, Craig Monson, Alan Brown, Richard Turbet and Philip Brett. Fellowes provided the first detailed account, which hasrecently been superseded by a new study by John Harley. Harley has revisited the archival documents and has made a number of fascinating discoveries, gleaned mostly from legal and genealogical records, which help put flesh on the bones of Byrd and his relatives. Not only are details of Byrd’s immediate family more clear, but we now know that the composer was a Londoner, and was not from Lincoln as previously thought.

Despite the wealth of new biographical material now available we still know very little of Byrd’s childhood and early musical training, and thus have not yet glimpsed the full plumage of the ‘early Byrd’. Indeed, until only very recently, his year of birth was considered to be c.1543, owing entirely to a statement in his will, dated November 15, 1622, in which Byrd describes himself as ‘nowe in the Eightieth years of myne age’ (Byrd died on July 4, 1623 in Stondon Massey, Essex; his will was proven on October 30). However, this document cannot be used as dating evidence in this way as no date is given in the preamble of the will (the majority of Tudor preambles contain a date); all it tells us is that Byrd was 80 years old when he began writing his will, and that it was completed by November 15, 1622. A casual trawl through the London will registers shows that the time between a testator starting and finishing his will could span from several months to several years.

John Harley has come closer in pinning down a more accurate date for Byrd’s birth. On or near October 2, 1598, Byrd drafted a deposition in his own hand to the Court of Star Chamber in which he describes himself as ’58 yeares or ther abouts’. The date is not in Byrd’s hand, but was presumably added later by a clerk of Star Chamber. Legal documents in Tudor times (especially depositions) were often set aside for some time before being dated and filed away, although Star Chamber was notably efficient in its proceedings. If both the dates of Byrd’s age and that of the clerk are to be trusted, the composer’s birth can now be placed near the end of 1539 or in 1540. The revised dating for Byrd’s birth means that he would have been too young to have been the ‘Wyllyam Byrd’ who was admitted as chorister of Westminster Abbey in 1542. However this line of enquiry should not yet be completely ruled out, as the time at Westminster of Byrd’s namesake is tantalisingly suggestive. There is also a significant amount of circumstantial evidence which leads one to question the identity of this Westminster chorister.

The newly-established chronology of the composer’s brothers Simon and John, both of whom were choristers at St Paul’s Cathedral in the 1550s, is also questionable. According to the Byrd family genealogy of 1571 (also discovered by Harley) the first son of Thomas and Margery (Byrd’s parents; Thomas was not, as is generally surmised, the person of that name who was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal who died in 1560) was Simon, the second son John, and the third son William. We also know the names of his four sisters: Alice, Barbara, Mary and Martha: Barbara Byrd was later to marry the virginals- and organ-maker, Robert Broughe. However, genealogical records of the period are notoriously inconsistent, and something certainly seems amiss regarding the chronological ordering of the brothers. In a petition drawn in 1554 by the choral staff of St Paul’s, John and Simon Byrd head the list of choristers. However, if William was the youngest son and born in 1539/40, then, even if one accepts that the brothers were a year apart, Simon and John could not have been younger than 16 and 15 respectively in 1554. The brothers were also receiving annuities as choristers of St Paul’s from 1555 to 1557, extending the life of their unbroken voices a furIher three years (a pew list drawn in 1561 shows that they had left the choir by this time). There is significant evidence to show that boys’ voices usually broke between the ages of 13 1/2 and 15 at the latest. If Simon and John sang as St Paul’s choristers in 1554 and were the brothers of the composer, then William could not have been the youngest son and it seems more probable that he was the eldest. This accepted, one might then hope to discover a reference to a William Byrd in earlier chorister lists.

We already know that at some point Byrd is very likely to have studied under his mentor and friend Thomas Tallis, a member of the Chapel Royal by 1543 (he was probably connected with the Chapel Royal as early as the late 1530s). That Tallis was one of his teachers may be deduced from a text by another Tallis pupil, the seventeen-year-old Ferdinand Heybourne (Ferdinando Richardson). In a Latin prefatory verse dedicated to Tallis and Byrd in their joint publication of Cantiones sacrae (1575) he refers to Tallis as ‘my venerable elder and great teacher’ and comments that Byrd is ‘born to honour such a great teacher with you, I honour our common master’. This point was taken up nearly a century later by Anthony Wood (1632-1695) whose well-known phrase that Byrd was ‘bred up to musick under Tho. Tallis’ passed into all the standard history books. Given Byrd’s exceptional musical talent, it is reasonable to conclude that he was more than adequately trained as a chorister from an early age, and his association with Tallis would suggest that this took place in the Chapel Royal. That institution–along with the royal chapels of St George’s, Windsor, and St Stephen’s, Westminster–was exempt from the possibility of its singing men and boys being transferred to another choral foundation, although it could poach singers from an institution of lower status, such as any cathedral or abbey church in the realm. So, if an agent of the Chapel Royal discovered a highly-skilled singer in another choir, that singer could easily be taken into the Chapel Royal. Could this have been the case with the young William Byrd?

This is where the career of ‘Wyllyam Byrd’, chorister of Westminster Abbey, becomes intriguing. A William Byrd does not appear in the Abbey chorister lists for 1541/2, although his name appears near the bottom of the list of choristers receiving payment for the quarter ending December 25, showing that this person joined the choir sometime in Michaelmas Term 1542. By June 24, 1543, William Byrd is the third chorister listed, possibly reflecting his rapidly-elevated status within the ranks of boys. By the end of the following term he must have already left the choir as his name is absent from the subsequent list recording payments made in the quarter ending September 29, 1543. Such a brief career would suggest that this William Byrd was a youngster of about 7 or 8 in September 1542 when he joined the choir, and, owing to his outstanding musical ability, was taken by Commission into some more senior choir between July and September 1543.

The notion that this Westminster chorister was the future composer who was almost immediately discovered by Tallis and taken into the Chapel Royal is indeed romantic, but not altogether fanciful. Though more concrete evidence is needed to substantiate the theory, it is interesting that during the time that ‘Wyllyam Byrd’ sang in the Abbey choir, William Mundy replaced Thomas Gyles as head chorister. The idea that Byrd and Mundy were choristers together is attractive, as there are a number of contemporary associations between the two composers. In the 1550s an alternatim psalm-setting of In exitu Israel was composed jointly by John Sheppard (another Westminster musician), Byrd and Mundy.1 Sheppard, who died in 1558, was responsible for most of the work, setting seven of the verses, while Byrd and Mundy set three and four verses respectively. Byrd at this time may have been a teenager and Mundy in his early 20s. Sheppard, however, was already a celebrated musician and a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, who no doubt saw profit in collaborating with two budding composers towards the end of his own career. This begs the question of whether Byrd and Mundy were attached to the Chapel Royal at a significantly earlier date than previously thought, but there is little doubt that at this time there was some sort of personal connection at work. Robert Dow, a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and scribe of the so-called Dow partbooks in Christ Church Library (an important manuscript source of Byrd’s music), portrays Mundy as the moon to Byrd’s sun. With regard to Byrd being ‘discovered’ at Westminster, perhaps the most significant connection is that Mundy’s father, Thomas, was a sexton at St Mary-at-Hill in London, where Thomas Tallis’ name appears in the payroll for 1537 and 1538. Could this be where Tallis first heard of a promising young chorister at Westminster?

(Despite the evidence gained from Harley’s Star Chamber document, which at first seems quite conclusively to date the composer’s birth to c.1539/40, the theory outlined above is more than thought-provoking. For Byrd to be identified as the Westminster chorister he would need to have been born in c.1534/5, so five years still remain to to be accounted for. It must be acknowledged that Byrd was a common surname in London in the 1540s. But that there were two young musicians by the name of William Byrd, aged only five years apart, with the slightly older namesake being a musician of apparently high calibre under the head choristership of William Mundy, is difficult to swallow. Harley admits that there is some need for a separate study of all the legal documents he has uncovered, explaining the legal processes involved, and while so much new information has been discovered on Byrd, there is little doubt that much more is left to be unearthed. The prospects are therefore good that the details of Byrd’s early musical career will yet come to light in the future.)

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was the finest English composer of his generation. His exceptionally long life allowed him to achieve a pre-eminence equalled by none, and his influence on the young Byrd may be felt in many ways. Tallis’s brilliant skills in the pre-Reformation arts of florid counterpoint had earned him his place in the Chapel Royal in 1543. However, the winds of reform were sweeping across Britain. Tallis thus became one of the inventors of a new and much simpler kind of sacred music to English texts, He retained his monumental skills well into old age, as is shown by the extraordinary forty-part motet Spem in alium–which must date from the Elizabethan years–but was also a composer of some consort works (such as In Nomine settings) and, above all, an excellent organist. His keyboard hymn-settings and the two majestic works based on the Felix namque plainsong, dated 1562 and 1564 in the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (FVB), were still admired over fifty years after they were composed. He would certainly have recognised in the young Byrd a spirit at least as adventurous, innovative and versatile as his own. The affectionate relationship of Tallis and Byrd across the generations is comparable to that of Blow and Purcell or Haydn and Mozart. After Tallis’s death in 1585, Byrd mourned him in a consort song: ‘Ye sacred muses, race of Jove / Whom Music’s lore delighteth; / Come down from crystal heav’ns above /To earth, where sorrow dwell eth, /In mourning weeds, with tears in eyes: / Tallis is dead, and Music dies.’ When Tallis’s widow Joan died four years later, she bequeathed to Byrd a ‘greate guilte cuppe’.

Byrd’s keyboard training was probably also influenced by several other eminent players. Although he is unlikely to have had direct contact with the famous organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Redford (who died in 1547), his brothers Simon and John may have known Redford personally and would certainly have known his music. Redford’s pieces constitute the most artistically significant body of English organ music of the Henrician period and were much respected and imitated during the following thirty years. He was succeeded at St Paul’s by Philip ap Rhys (whose activities in London can be traced between 1545 and 1559. critical years for Byrd’s early training); several interesting organ works by him survive in a manuscript of London origin, a source that also contains fine music by the organist of the royal chapel at St George’s. Windsor, Thomas Preston (also active from 1543 to 1559). Finally, John Blitheman (c1525-1591) must also have played a part in his keyboard training, even if only by providing a respectable model from which he would rapidly move on. Blitheman became a member of the Chapel Royal sometime during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1559) and the music by him that survives probably dates from the 1550s and 1560s (largely preserved in The Mulliner Book). A repertoire such as this would have formed a fine training for any young organist of Byrd’s generation. All his life he retained a fondness for typically English sonorities, including dissonant false relations.

The tradition upheld by Philip ap Rhys and John Blitheman was digitally brilliant. based on rapid figurations and elaborate cross-rhythms. Their influence can be felt in some of Byrd’s very earliest works. His first Salvator mundi setting (BK68) even quotes from a piece by Blitheman. However. a more expressively melodic approach is noticeable early on. as in the simple Miserere settings (BK66/67); these may be closer to Preston’s work. The strong personality of Redford’s music. characterised by wide spacious writing and a melodic discourse of unique eloquence, must have strongly impressed the young Byrd; indeed he positively embraced its influence. as is clear from a magnificent early work, the Voluntarie (BK27). However, it is above all Tallis’s spirit that comes to the fore, Byrd’s little Gloria tibi trinitas (BK52) quotes directly from a Tallis work and the spirit of the master’s organ hymns and vocal pieces is felt even more strongly in Byrd’s earliest consort pieces as well as in slightly more mature works for keyboard such as the three settings of Clarifica me, pater (BK47-49). Byrd’s early music in general shows its debt to a wide range of other English composers including John Taverner, Robert Whyte and Christopher Tye. Nevertheless, it is striking how quickly he freed himself from the shadow of his masters and became his own man. with a highly distinctive voice.

Some of these compositions might have been written when he was in his teens, during Queen Mary’s reign, and have thus had a short-lived function for the Catholic liturgy. However, Elizabeth’s accession (1558) brought an almost immediate end to all such direct liturgical links with the Latin rite since the Act of Uniformity of 1559. and the establishment of the Elizabethan Prayer Book soon after delivered a final, definitive blow to the Catholic (Sarum) liturgy. Nevertheless, some composers (Byrd among them) seem to have continued to base works on the traditional plainsongs, and organists continued to them; to use John Caldwell’s apt phrase, such pieces are ‘inspired by but not intended for the liturgy’

On February 27, 1562/3, Byrd was in his early twenties and sufficiently brilliant a player and compose, to be named organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln cathedral in the north of England, as successor to the ‘skilled and faithful’ Thomas Appleby. He took up his duties on what was then considered the first day of the new year 1563, March 25 (the Annunciation). His annual salary was ten marks (over £13). He married in 1568. His wife is referred to in documents as ‘Juliana’ or ‘Julian’ Byrd; they are known to have had at least seven children: : Christopher (baptized in 1569), Elizabeth (baptized early in 1572), Rachell (born sometime before 1574), Mary, Catherine, Thomas (baptized in 1576; Tallis was his godfather), and Edward (Thomas’s twin brother), who seems to have died young.

The Dean of Lincoln Cathedral, Francis Mallett, was known for his appreciation of music but he died in 1570. However, the Archdeacon was John Aylmer, a zealous anti-papist, later appointed Bishop of London, with whom Byrd was to have more severe problems in 1577. His later years in Lincoln were marked by some disputes with the authorities. Yet independently of any disputes. he must have been waiting for an opportunity to leave. Like any young musician of talent, he hoped for a post in the Chapel Royal, but these were limited in number. He had to wait for eight years until one became free and he could return to London. The opportunity came on the death of yet another composer whose influence on him can be demonstratedÐ Robert Parsons, who drowned in the river Trent at Newark on January 25, 1571/2. Byrd was immediately appointed in his place and although he was named a member of the Chapel Royal in February 1571/2, he formally left Lincoln only in December 1572 (and was succeeded by Thomas Butler).

The Lincoln authorities agreed to release him only on condition that he should remain ‘at large’, maintaining a link with the cathedral. For ten years he went on receiving a much reduced salary from Lincoln in return for writing sacred music for them, presumably mostly in English. This shows his early reputation as a composer of sacred music and confirms that while in Lincoln he was not simply an organist who wrote only keyboard works.

By the time he left, he had no doubt already composed the following works: the Christe qui lux (BK121; if it is authentic): the Voluntarie (BK27: if it had not already been composed before going to Lincoln); the A minor and G major fancies (BK13 and BK62) as well as the Ut, mi, re (BK65), the three ‘short’ grounds (BK9, BK43 and BK86, called ‘short’ because composed on a short four-bar ground theme, not because of the length of the works); the excellent Horne Pipe (BK39): and perhaps also the Galliarde Gygge (B K 18) and the first version of The Hunt’s Up (BK40). He may also have made at this time the keyboard transcription of Parson’s In nomine (BK51; assuming it was indeed made by him).

In London he was now the colleague of Tallis and Blitheman and a member of the most prestigious musical establishment in the kingdom. Byrd held one of the posts of organist. The choir of the Chapel Royal was the largest and certainly the finest of its kind. The conditions of employment were excellent: most musicians received annual salaries of £30 a year (later increased to £40), more than three times higher than the norm elsewhere. In London and court circles he rapidly acquired powerful patrons, including several noble families, some of whom had remained attached to Roman Catholicism. Over the next thirty years the list of dedicatees of his published volumes amply establishes the powerful circles in which he moved: Queen Elizabeth (1575), Sir Christopher Hatton (1588), Lord Worcester (1589), Lord Hunsdon (1589), Lord Lumley (1591), Lord Northampton (1605), Lord Petre (1607) and Lord Cumberland (1611). In 1579/80 he taught the daughter of Lord Northumberland (presumably giving her keyboard lessons); other possible aristocratic pupils were Henry Herbert and Thomas Paget. The relationship with certain families lasted for much of Byrd’s life. The link with the Petre family seems to date from at least 1568 (before his return to London) and thus lasted over fifty years. His ties with Lord Worcester were also very longstanding, since he still stayed at Worcester’s London house right at the end of his life.

In 1575 he published jointly with Tallis the first volume of Cantiones sacrae, dedicated to the Queen herself, the first important edition of English music. The mastery shown by Byrd in these meters must have been acquired during the previous ten or fifteen years, and we may assume that his keyboard works written over the same period were at least as accomplished. The following pieces had probably been composed by the time he published the Cantiones sacrae: Ðthe C minor pavan, supposedly ‘the first that ever bee made’, no doubt with its galliard (BK29a/b); ÐAn Almane (BK89); ÐA Verse of Two Parts (BK28) and the first (consort) version of A Lesson of voluntarie, two parts in one in the 4th above (BK26); Ðthe variations on Gypseis Round (BK80) and perhaps The Maydens songe (BK82); Ðthe ground Qui passe, for my Ladye Nevell (BK19). These compositions are all quite within the native tradition, even the last (based on an Italian model that was well known in England at the time); however, the 1575 Cantiones sacrae show that Byrd, by now fully conversant with everything his heritage could offer, was already looking further afield for inspiration.

He found it especially in the music of the Italian Alfonso Ferrabosco I who had settled in London, with whose music he became familiar between 1572 and 1578. But he had never been cut off from continental developments. Indeed, in his youth, in 1554, he may well have met Antonio de Cabezon (as well as his brother Juan, and his son Agustin who would have been about his own age) during the Spanish Chapel Royal’s long stay in England. For over six months the two Chapels lived side by side and sometimes performed together at Mass. Nevertheless, there is very little trace of direct Spanish influence in his keyboard music.

Through such contacts, and his first-hand knowledge of Italian music, Byrd’s eyes and ears were opened to new ideas, above all to the innovative Italianate methods of constructing long paragraphs in imitative polyphony that were based on shorter, expressive, melodic phrases, that used a richer harmonic language, and displayed a different approach to word-setting. His keyboard writing was also transformed as a result, above all in its ways of constructing these extended paragraphs (‘points’) of cogent musical thought, independent of any text. This was musical discourse that could be argued, developed, expanded, contracted, recapitulated in varied form, and finally brought to a satisfying melodic, rhythmic and harmonic climax, thus achieving full independence from the grammatical and syntactical influences of a text such as helped shape vocal music. In this way, purely instrumental music was developing its own grammar and syntax, its own raison d’être.

Essential in this stage of his development are the first works in what Joseph Kerman calls his ‘marvellous series of pavans and galliards.’ They clearly fascinated Byrd across his whole working life, for fifty years. These forms enabled him to experiment with constructing, time and again, ‘points’ of imitation that obey only their own internal musical logic. Each pavan and each galliard calls for three phrases which need to be quite distinct, yet complementary. They extend occasionally over just four bars, but more often over eight-bar phrases, and–most comfortably of all for Byrd–over leisurely sixteen-bar paragraphs. Two splendid works even have a giantsize 32-bar format for the phrases. In Byrd’s 56 pavans and galliards, there are well over 160 such phrases (or more than 320 if the varied repeats are also counted since they are never written mechanically and the music is always thought-out afresh). It is here, in the varied construction of these 160 musical cells, that these remarkable works, taken as a whole, may be likened to the 96 pieces in Bach’s Well tempered Clavier or the 102 movements of Beethoven’s piano sonatas; they occupy as intimate a position in his output as thosetwo other great repertoires do in Bach’s and Beethoven’s. They may be seen as a sort of laboratory in which he wrestled with new concepts of melodic structure supported by innovative harmonic schemes, and gave renewed life to older English ideas of rhythmic development, now extended across the three phrases of a single piece. Like Bach and Beethoven, he demonstrably put the experience thus acquired to good use in non-keyboard music. ‘Dance form offered him the opportunity for endless subtle manipulations of different rhythms and different phrase lengths It was a form that proved to he especially congenial to Byrd’s genius’ (Kerman,1980). The studied balance between the three such phrases required for the pavan structure, based on the progression from one to the other and above all the internal musical logic that he developed to hold the whole together, remains one of Byrd’s finest achievements.

Byrd was now at the height of his powers, had achieved social standing and recognition. He was able to exercise his genius without restraint in whatever direction he wished: vocal music to English or Latin texts; secular songs, even a few (Latin) songs connected with theatrical performances in Oxford; consort and keyboard music. Yet these professionally successful years were also increasingly difficult ones for Byrd personally. In religious matters his sympathies were clearly Roman Catholic, and this was dangerous. His Catholic acquaintances now came under more intense persecution. Several Jesuits such as the brilliant Edmund Campion, and later the fine poet Robert Southwell (whom he knew personally), were arrested, tortured and executed. Catholic families were heavily fined for not attending the reformed church on Sundays (they were thus considered ‘recusants’ since they refused to accept the authority of the English Church). From 1577 Byrd’s wife was under close scrutiny by the authorities, under the eye of the zealous new Bishop of London, John Aylmer, whom Byrd had known in Lincoln. In 1580 the fines for recusants were fixed at £20 per month, nearly ten times Byrd’s monthly salary. From 1581 the Byrd house was regarded as suspiciously ‘papist’. In 1582 his manservant John Reason was arrested and briefly imprisoned. In 1583 Reason was again arrested while carrying a letter by Byrd and some suspiciously Catholic music. Finally, in May 1585, despite his standing at court, Byrd came under direct investigation himself and his house was searched twice. In 1588 Byrd’s wife and two daughters were pronounced outlaws, as was his son Christopher the following year. Defiance in the face of adversity, however, seems to have been a characteristic of this proud and wily man. It is clear that Byrd and his family were only protected from a worse fate by the direct protection of powerful Catholic nobles such as Lords Northampton and Petre. He continued fulfilling his duties at court. The Attorney General intervened on his behalf in 1589 and 1591. Finally, in 1592. the Queen herself appears to have ordered the authorities to halt their harassment of Byrd.

During the later years of this troubled period Byrd published a series of four astonishing volumes, unprecedented in the history of English music and including many of his best vocal works to dateÐamusing secular songs, pious (but not liturgical) texts in English, and some sombre motets (or ‘sacred songs’), in Latin but not intended for the Catholic liturgy. Indeed, Kerman has shown that some of them had texts made up of irreproachable verses carefully selected from the Bible (especially from the Psalms and the Book of Jeremiah), yet cleverly rearranged in a cryptic, defiant fashion as coded statements secretly addressed to the besieged English Roman Catholic community, expressing their faith and hope as well as their anger and despair: ‘Look down, O Lord, on our suffering in these terrible times and do not abandon us; Jerusalem is laid waste, the joy in our hearts is changed into grief and our happiness into bittemess’: ‘Weeping, my eye shall bring forth tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive. Tell the king and the queen, Be humbled, sit down, for the crown of your glory has fallen from your heads”

Comparable to these four volumes of vocal music printed between 1588 and 1591, the important manuscript collection of 42 of his finest keyboard works, made in 1591 by his colleague John Baldwin or ‘Ladye Nevell’ appears to have been the result of the same desire. The printing of keyboard music, unlike vocal music. entailed certain difficulties at that time, solved only twenty years later by the technique of engraving on copper plates. These difficulties no doubt dissuaded Byrd from attempting a printed keyboard anthology. He must have been fully aware that his achievement in the field was at least as revolutionary as what he had done in the areas of vocal polyphony. The Nevell manuscript brings to a close this period of four years of anthologizing his best works to date.

During these same years he taught several of the most significant English composers of the next two generations and later had the satisfaction of seeing them all achieve positions of eminence:

    • Thomas Morley (c 1557-1602) must have studied with Byrd during the 1570s; he became organist at St Paul’s Cathedral and then Gentleman of the Chapel Royal from 1592. Morley’s dedication in 1597 to Byrd of his important treatise in dialogue form, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musick (PEIPM), is phrased in the most affectionate terms. Byrd is also called ‘my loving Maister (never without reverence to be named of the musicians)’. Morley has been shown to have had links with the Catholic community.
    • Peter Philips (1560-1628) apparently also studied with Byrd, probably at about the same time as Morley. He became a Catholic and in 1597 was named organist to the Archduke Albert, in Brussels.
    • John Bull (c 1563-1628) was trained in the Chapel Royal from the age of about eleven, in the mid-1570s, shortly after Byrd’s nomination; he cannot have failed to come under his influence. Bull was named organist of Hereford Cathedral in 1582. In 1585/6 he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal where he was one of the organists and therefore a direct colleague of Byrd and of his other teacher, John Blitheman. In the opening phrase of a speech he gave at Gresham College on October 1597, Bull acknowledged Byrd as one of his masters, implying that he was present and should be giving the lecture in his place. He used a punning reference to the eagle (to whom others had also likened Byrd), ‘soaring aloft into the clouds such a quick-sighted bird should now be in this place, who flying through heaven might fetch Apollo’s harp and sound unto you the prayse of heavenlie Musick. My Master liveth and long may he live, and I his scholar not worthy in yours and his presence to speak of this Art and Science.’ Bull also converted to Catholicism. In 1613 he became Philips’s colleague as organist to the Archduke Albert in Brussels. and then organist of Antwerp Cathedral.
    • Thomas Tomkins (1571-1656) probably studied with Byrd from about 1594 until 1596 when he left for Worcester as organist of the cathedral. He became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1621. In the dedication his Songs of 3. 4. 5. & 6. parts(1622) he referred to Byrd as ‘my ancient, & much reverenced Master’. Two manuscripts belonging to Tomkins survive, one of which contains two fascinating lists of all the keyboard pieces he considered to be exceptionally good, the famous lists of Lessons of worthe. Tomkins had an excellent critical sense and the eighteen pieces by Byrd he includes are indeed among his finest: grounds and variations: WalsinghamBK8, Hugh Ashton’s GrowndeBK20, The Carman’s whistleBK36, Go from my windowBK79, O Mistris myne, I mustBK83, Sellinger’s RowndeBK84, and A GroundeBK86; fantasias: A Lesson of voluntarie, two parts in one in the 4th aboveBK26, FantasiaBK62, Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, laBK64, Ut, mi, re,BK65; pavans and galliards: Quadran Paven and GalliardBK70a/b, Pavana and Galiardo Sir William PetreBK3a/b, Eccho paven & galliardBK 114a/b; and finally Monsieur’s Almon (II)BK88.
  • Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) may also have been a pupil, probably during the early 1590s. He was appointed organist of Winchester College in 1598 and of Chichester Cathedral in 1602. Although he described himself in 1608 as ‘Gentleman of the Chapel Royal,’ he appears to have been only a Gentleman Extraordinary. An important manuscript containing over thirty keyboard pieces by Byrd, British Library Add. MS. 30485 (Weelkes), is now considered to have been copied by him, possibly partly while he was studying with Byrd.


It cannot be shown that Richard Mico (c1590-1661) formally studied with Byrd, but he cannot have failed to be strongly influenced by the aging master. Mico was employed by Byrd’s important patron Lord William Petre at Thorndon Hall, Essex, close to Byrd’s house in Stondon Massey (see below); he taught Pene’s daughter the virginals. He became a Roman Catholic and his son became a Jesuit. These links as well as the style of Mico’s compositions (all the surviving works are for viols) confirm Byrd’s influence. Similarly, there is no record of Byrd having had any part in the training of Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), perhaps the most original of all these composers; nevertheless, Gibbons became one of Byrd’s colleagues in the Chapel Royal in 1604, and his collaboration with Byrd and Bull in the innovative keyboard publication, Parthenia(1612/13) clearly indicates a relationship.

Following his problems with the authorities, Byrd left London in about 1593 and moved his family to a farm at Stondon Place in the parish of Stondon Massey, close to the Catholic family of Lord Petre in his great Essex estates. Here Byrd undertook the most ambitious and most dangerous project of his lifeÐthe composition of well over a hundred pieces specifically intended for the full annual cycle of the Roman Catholic Latin rite. This was his greatest large-scale venture and the music is of the very highest quality throughout, passionate and visionary. He published it in three phases. First came the three settings (for three. four and five Voices) of the Ordinary of the Mass, published between 1592 and 1595 with the greatest of discretion. and under his own name: the publisher, on the other hand, did not dare put his own name on the volumes. Then. and only after Queen Elizabeth’s death, he brought outthe two volumes of Gradualia(1605, 1607; reprinted in 1610). All these compositions were not grand works designed for public ceremonial use. but concise, intimate pieces probably intended for singing one to a part. like madrigals: sacred chamber music, suitable for singing in ceremonies in recusant households such as Ingatestone Hall, out of sight of the authorities.

A final volume of secular vocal music appeared in 1611, confirming his desire to bring together the best of his works. The dedication to the Earl of Cumberland shows that he was still composing well into old age: ‘The Naturall inclination and love to the Art of Musicke, wherein I have spent the better part of mine age. have been so powerfull in me that even in my old yeares which are desirous of rest. I cannot containe my selfe from taking some paines therein.’ Byrd’s immediate legacy was twofold and diverse. In England. his most original contributions in the specific area of keyboard music bore fruit yet, curiously, native English composers subsequently lost a firm sense of direction. Nevertheless, Byrd’s pupils (and Gibbons) maintained and developed, especially in consort writing, his rich and concise approach to polyphony. This characteristically insular, English stilo antico leads directly through William Lawes and John Jenkins to Matthew Locke and Henry Purcell. On the Continent,on the other hand. Byrd’s polyphonic style had no direct influence since it remained almost entirely unknown: however, in the area of keyboard music, Philips and Bull influenced such fine players as their colleague Pieter Cornet (c1575-1633). as well as Sweelinck (1562-1621), who in turn formed the next generation, Scheidt and Scheidemann.

Recording Byrd’s death on July 4, 1623, one of his Chapel Royal colleagues referred to him as ‘a Father Of Musick’. This may possibly be simply a reference to his being the oldest member of the Chapel. However, an unidentified writer ‘G. Ga’ (perhaps George Gage) had already referred to him in a Latin epigram in the second volume of Gradualia (1607) as ‘cultivated by many and admired by all. Master William Byrd. Father of British Music’.

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1. Some authorities, notably Hugh Benham, cast serious doubt on whether the co-composer was, in fact, William Byrd, and suggest that the ‘mr birde’ referred to in the source the Giffard partbooks) was rather Thomas Byrd.Return to Text

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