William Byrd: the great survivor

Rebecca Tavener
Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Despite living at a time of great religious and political instability, William Byrd was astute enough to keep his head (literally). The beauty of his liturgical music has meant that it too has survived over the 400 years since his death

Simon Johnson conducts the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, who are performing Byrd’s complete settings of music for the Mass throughout 2023 (© mazur/cbcew.org.uk)
Simon Johnson conducts the Choir of Westminster Cathedral, who are performing Byrd’s complete settings of music for the Mass throughout 2023 (© mazur/cbcew.org.uk)

There is in the very words themselves, as I have learnt from experience, a power so perfectly concealed that as one meditates upon holy writ, reviewing it carefully and seriously, all the most apposite musical phrases present themselves, in some unknown way, as if of their own volition – William Byrd (from the dedication to his Gradualia of 1605)

When Byrd wrote this dedication, whom was he addressing? The dedicatee, obviously, Lord Petre; the great Catholic families maintaining their private chapels; generations to come… certainly not the cloth-eared Calvinist King James I. It is amazing that it could be published openly because the canny Byrd had gained the approbation of the Bishop of London. While the breadth of his output beyond Latin liturgical music is impressive – secular, instrumental, English service music, etc – it is the edge of danger that surrounds his Latin works, as well as their supreme quality, that exerts the greatest fascination for today’s audiences. What does this dedication tell us about Byrd’s composing methods? The views of some of today’s leading composers of sacred music will follow; but first, who was Byrd?

William Byrd

Driven, uncompromising Catholic, obsessive, tenacious, and careful of his rights: William Byrd

The life of William Byrd (c.1540-1623) glows against a tenebrous background of fear and faith: how those two profound influences worked on the creative mind of a musical genius is a question that we can only answer in part; but to examine his creativity without placing it in historical context is to miss much of what makes him one of the exceptional figures in British musical history. To consider him without also acknowledging his friend and colleague, the musical elder statesman of the Tudor period, Thomas Tallis, is also to reduce our opportunity to appreciate him more fully. Their joint musical and spiritual legacy is immeasurable and we may infer something, perhaps, about them as people from their careers and works: Tallis the mentor, father-figure and friend, canny and diplomatic; Byrd the driven, uncompromising Catholic, obsessive, tenacious, and careful of his rights – something evinced by his property ownership and litigation in later life.

Byrd did not have to swerve as many religious policy obstacles as Tallis, being 18 at the time of Mary Tudor’s death. Byrd was a true Elizabethan, serving a complex, enigmatic monarch whose pragmatic Protestantism preserved music and other liturgical adornments while keeping hard-line Reformers from getting it all their own way. Elizabeth I, the intellectual aesthete with a refined sense of the numinous, wouldn’t give up the things she appreciated in church. English reigned in the Book of Common Prayer, but Gloriana enjoyed her polyphony in Latin. In spite of that long Elizabethan era, festering religious division and paranoia re-surfaced after the accession of James I, leading to the Gunpowder Plot (1605), the English Civil War (1640s), and much ongoing misery with poisoned tentacles reaching into the present day.

Byrd Mass

The Kyrie of Byrd’s Mass for four voices

Byrd was born in London c.1540 and it is traditionally assumed that he was a chorister of the Chapel Royal under the direction of Tallis, who probably retained him as an assistant after his voice broke. No doubt that association helped the younger man obtain the post of organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563, where he stayed for a decade in spite of clashes with the Chapter regarding the ‘popish’ nature of his lavish instrumental contributions to the liturgy. It was in these magnificent surroundings that he honed his craft, and he seems to have been conscious of the need to expand his expertise in as many forms and styles as possible with a view to greater advancement.

In 1572 the death of Robert Parsons created a vacancy in the Chapel Royal and Byrd was sworn in and described as joint organist with Tallis. In 1575 they were granted the first music-printing monopoly under royal patronage – an achievement which reveals how effectively they worked their influential contacts, both for patronage and protection. Elizabeth I accepted the dedication of their joint production, the Cantiones Sacrae, probably for her private Latin service in the Chapel Royal, sending out an unmistakable message to detractors. Byrd surely learned the craft of entrepreneurial circumspection and diplomacy from Tallis, but this did not prevent them both from being watched. Accusations of recusancy (non-attendance at Protestant Communion) were levelled against Byrd on several occasions from 1584, and he was fined but rescued from further punishment by his friends at court. Was his adherence to Rome almost an ‘open secret’? In 1605 and 1607 Byrd felt confident enough to publish the volumes of Gradualia (arguably Byrd’s magnum opus, anthologising his dazzlingly varied polyphonic settings of Propers for the Mass) openly, with a temporary withdrawal after the Gunpowder Plot inspired a resurgence of virulent anti-Catholic feeling. After Byrd’s death in 1623, from natural causes and surrounded by family, he left considerable worldly possessions including a farm and woodland at Stondon Massey, proof positive of his effective lifetime manipulation of patronage.

Elizabeth I

James I

As organist at Lincoln Cathedral, and then as a member of the Chapel Royal, Byrd steered a delicate path through the political and religious uncertainties of the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I

Like Haydn, did Byrd feel isolated and thereby ‘forced to be original’? Cut off from cultural commerce with Catholic Europe by the English Reformation, we can see this in his Masses. Although they adhere to the tenets of the Council of Trent in terms of the moderation of melisma and clarity of word-setting, they are utterly non-European in construction and could never be confused with works by Lassus or Palestrina. All three of Byrd’s Masses are freely composed rather than built on the European ‘parody’ format; moreover, Byrd, in a miracle of concision, manages in settings of greater brevity to sustain imitative counterpoint much more extensively than even Palestrina achieves.

Byrd could never have heard his Gradualia or Mass settings sung by a full choir in the liturgical solemnity of Mass in a great cathedral. In his lifetime, his sacred music would mostly have been realised by tiny ensembles in clandestine settings. In the early years of James I, for example, Mass was celebrated in numerous wealthy households with music from the Gradualia: Appleton Hall in Norfolk, for example, the home of Edward Paston. The forces involved might well be one voice to a part, with a celebrant to sing the liturgical framework. While this knowledge influences today’s consort performances, we might speculate that the sound in Byrd’s own head, flowing out through his pen, would have been that of a full choir in a glorious ecclesiastical setting. He surely cherished a hope that England would return to Rome and that his Latin works would one day ring round her magnificent cathedrals: he was writing for a sublime, heavenly eternity, not merely for the restrictions of an uncertain, perilous present.

As James MacMillan – whose work in tribute to Byrd’s 400th anniversary, Ye Sacred Muses, was commissioned by The King’s Singers – puts it in his blog for Byrd Central: ‘I was astonished to learn that if the composer had been found with the published scores on his person he could have been arrested. I pictured the scenario of how these Masses would have been first used – in secret, one singer to a part, musicians and a small band of terrified worshippers hiding and praying in a secluded back room somewhere. The priest, if caught could have lost his life. I’ve always had a profound admiration for William Byrd for remaining true to his faith in these desperate days.’

Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral

Byrd’s keyboard works are largely framed in old-school counterpoint, while he also produced organ works in the avant-garde ‘virginal’ style. While his reputation is greatly enhanced by his many surviving secular keyboard works, there is frustratingly little extant liturgical keyboard music, especially when one considers the complaints made about his improvised playing in Lincoln. This is tantalising if one imagines in Byrd’s unpreserved liturgical repertoire the brilliance and invention of his secular keyboard music. In Byrd’s time organ music was undergoing a gradual secularisation, but his keyboard music evolved from a vocal tradition – a concept we have all but lost touch with today. Composers of this period had a training that was at first vocal and then extended to instrumental activity without losing sight of the former – the Tudor composer had vocal music in his veins. It has taken us several centuries to arrive at our current extreme specialisation and, in some ways, a regrettable disassociation from the vocal.

So, what do composers of today make of the above quotation taken from the dedication of the 1605 Gradualia? Judith Bingham finds that ‘studying words properly can, I find, kickstart the musical process, just as he says. But Byrd is, I think, talking about meditating on the religious meaning, and his music has an intensity of belief that is missing in many if not most contemporary composers. Often, composers are looking for a metaphorical take on the words, or simply using them as a template for a musical idea. Byrd would be quite shocked by this, I think, just as his intention to put his and his wife’s life on the line for his faith would maybe make us uncomfortable.’

Roxanna Panufnik, whose Kyrie After Byrd was commissioned by ORA Singers, agrees: ‘Words are extraordinary – some immediately conjure up vivid musical atmospheres the instant I read them. The drama and mysticism of liturgical words never fail to stir me and I always seem to “hear” new musics, even if I’m setting something for the second or third time.’ Other views are available – as Gabriel Jackson says: ‘I think Byrd is being a bit disingenuous here. And I certainly don’t believe in “divine inspiration”, so Byrd’s words don’t ring true for me. Of course certain words or phrases might suggest a particular treatment – which would be different for every composer – but one doesn’t have to go with that (and I often don’t). Just writing whatever comes into your head at any given point in the text isn’t composition, it’s improvisation.’

Considering Byrd’s noble and royal connections, perhaps the last word should go to the current Master of the King’s Music, Judith Weir: ‘I’m in close agreement with Byrd here. If you are working with a beautiful or apposite text – this is key here – the words themselves already present you with so much musical information. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say that, with the presence of a clear, well-constructed text, the music writes itself. But certainly, all sorts of details, rhythm, structure, emotional colour, are already there waiting for you on the page.’

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Choir & Organ. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

Rebecca Tavener is a singer and director specialising in early and contemporary music. She is founder-director of Canty, Scotland’s only professional medieval music group.

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