Byrd, William

born 1543, Lincoln, Lincolnshire?, Eng.
died July 4, 1623, Stondon Massey, Essex

British composer.

He studied under Thomas Tallis and was appointed organist of Lincoln Cathedral at age 20. In 1572 he became organist of the Chapel Royal, sharing the post with Tallis. In 1575 the two men received from Elizabeth I the exclusive license for the printing and selling of music in Britain. Though repeatedly prosecuted as a Roman Catholic, Byrd remained in favour with the queen. He is renowned as Britain's finest composer of sacred choral works, as well as for his keyboard music and songs. His works include three masses (for three, four, and five voices), some 220 Latin motets, four important Anglican services, and some 60 anthems, as well as some 100 virginal pieces (many preserved in the collections Parthenia and The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book).

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▪ English composer
born 1543, Lincoln, Lincolnshire?, Eng.
died July 4, 1623, Stondon Massey, Essex
 English organist and composer of the Shakespearean age who is best known for his development of the English madrigal. He also wrote virginal and organ music that elevated the English keyboard style.

      Of Byrd's origins and early life virtually nothing is known. He was a pupil and protégé of the organist and composer Thomas Tallis (Tallis, Thomas), and his first authenticated appointment was as organist at Lincoln cathedral (Feb. 27, 1563). In 1572 he moved to London to take up his post as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, where he shared the duties of organist with Tallis.

      The close personal and professional relationship between the two men had important musical consequences. In 1575 Elizabeth I granted them a joint monopoly for the importing, printing, publishing, and sale of music, and the printing of music paper. The first work under their imprint appeared in that year—a collection of Cantiones Sacrae dedicated to the Queen; of the 34 motets, Tallis contributed 16 and Byrd 18.

      In 1577 Byrd moved to Harlington, Middlesex, where he and his family lived for the next 15 years. As a devout and lifelong Catholic he probably preferred the greater privacy of living outside London. Yet in spite of his close social contact with many other Catholics, some of whom were certainly implicated in treasonable activities, his own loyalty to the government was never questioned.

      In 1585 Tallis died, and in the following year Byrd's wife, Julian. These sad events may have prompted him to set his musical house in order, for in the next three years he published four collections of his own music: Psalms, Sonets, & songs of sadnes & pietie (1588), Songs of sundrie natures (1589), and two further books of Cantiones Sacrae (1589 and 1591). The two secular volumes were dedicated, respectively, to Sir Christopher Hatton, the lord chancellor, and to Lord Hunsdon, the lord chamberlain and first cousin to the Queen. Both volumes of motets were dedicated to prominent Catholics: the Earl of Worcester, a great friend and patron of Byrd's, whose loyalty to the crown was unimpeachable, and Lord Lumley. Also in 1591 a manuscript volume of Byrd's keyboard music was prepared for “my Ladye Nevell” (probably Rachel, wife of Sir Edward Nevill), while many more keyboard pieces found their way into the volume known as the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, copied by another well-known Catholic, Francis Tregian, during his imprisonment in the Fleet.

      In 1592 or 1593 Byrd moved with his family to Stondon Massey, Essex, where he lived for the rest of his life. At the accession of James I, the Catholics' prospects temporarily brightened, and this probably prompted Byrd's next three publications. In his collection of three masses and two books of Gradualia (1605, 1607), he attempted to provide single-handed a basic liturgical repertory, comprising music for the ordinary (i.e., the unvarying parts of the mass) and for the proper (i.e., the parts of the mass that vary according to the day or the feast) of all main feasts. It is significant that the dedicatees of both books of Gradualia were prominent Catholics ennobled within the first years of James's reign: the Earl of Northampton and Lord Petre of Writtle, another close friend of Byrd's. One further publication came from Byrd, the Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets of 1611, containing English sacred and secular music.

      Byrd's musical stature can hardly be overrated. He wrote extensively for every medium then available except, it seems, the lute. His virginal and organ music brought the English keyboard style to new heights and pointed the way to the achievements of other English composers, such as John Bull, Giles Farnaby, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Tomkins. In music for viol consort he also played an extremely important role, pioneering the development of the freely composed fantasia, which was to become the most important form of Jacobean and later composers. Although he admired Italian madrigals and as a publisher helped introduce them to England, Byrd's own secular vocal music is distinctly conservative; much of it is conceived for the old-fashioned medium of solo voice accompanied by viol consort, later abandoned by the English madrigalists, with Thomas Morley (Byrd's pupil) at their head. Byrd sometimes added texts to the polyphonic accompaniments of these songs, in effect making them madrigals.

      Byrd's religious beliefs did not prevent him from composing a great deal of church music (liturgical music) to English words, most of which has survived only in manuscript. Although this is of generally high quality it cannot be denied that Byrd maintained his highest consistent level in his Latin sacred music. Of this, the 1589 and 1591 sets of Cantiones Sacrae (mostly designed for the private edification of the Catholic circles Byrd moved in and therefore unrestricted by liturgical considerations) have an intensity unrivalled in England and a breadth of scale unknown on the Continent. Although the Gradualia are necessarily more concise and superficially more similar to the work of Giovanni da Palestrina and Tomás Luis de Victoria, with which Byrd was well acquainted, closer examination reveals their real individuality as well as an astonishingly consistent level of inspiration.

J. Jeremy Noble

Major Works

Roman Catholic church music
Masses: Masses for three, four, and five voices. Motets: Motets for from three to nine voices in Cantiones Sacrae, 1575; Cantiones Sacrae, books 1 and 2, 1589 and 1591; Gradualia, two books, 1605 and 1607.

Anglican church music.
Anthems: More than 20 motets, for from three to six voices, and for solo voice and viols, most in Songs of sundrie natures, 1589; and in the collection Teares or Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soul of Sir William Leighton, 1614. Psalms: About 20 in Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadnes & pietie, 1588; and Songs of sundrie natures, 1589. Miscellaneous: Litany for four voices; two complete services; two magnificats and a Nunc Dimittis; prayers and responses. Songs and madrigals. Madrigals: About 50 madrigals in Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadnes & pietie, 1588; Songs of sundrie natures, 1589; Musica Transalpina, 1588; and The first sett of Italian Madrigalls, 1590. Songs: Songs for voices and viols in Songs of sundrie natures, 1589; and in Psalmes, Songs, & sonnets of sadnes & pietie, 1611; more than 30 for voices and instruments in manuscript; about 40 rounds and canons.

Instrumental music
Viols: Fantasias in three to six parts; In nomines; pavans and galliards. Keyboard: About 140 pieces for keyboard in Parthenia, manuscript collection written c. 1611; My Ladye Nevells Booke, manuscript collection written in 1591; The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, manuscript collection written in c. 1612–19; and in Will Forster's Book, manuscript collection written in 1624.

Additional Reading
The Collected Vocal Works of William Byrd, 2 vol., ed. by E.H. Fellowes (1937–50); and a more scholarly edition of the sacred works in vol. 2, 7, and 9 of Tudor Church Music (1921–28). See also Frank Howes, William Byrd (1928, reprinted 1978); E.H. Fellowes, William Byrd, 2nd ed. (1948); and Imogen Holst, Byrd (1972).

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Universalium. 2010.

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