Byrd

Born: 1543

Died: 1623

William Byrd

If Tallis was the first important English composer, Byrd was the first English composer of genius, unquestionably the greatest of the Elizabethan era. He, more than anyone – even Purcell – can claim to be the father of British music.

If Tallis was the first important English composer, Byrd was the first English composer of genius, unquestionably the greatest of the Elizabethan era. He, more than anyone – even Purcell – can claim to be the father of British music.

Byrd may have studied under Tallis as a young man. What is certain is that at the age of only 20 he was appointed organist of Lincoln Cathedral and in 1572 he moved to London to become joint organist of the Chapel Royal with Tallis. The two of them obtained the exclusive licence to publish music in England, in effect an early attempt to establish copyright. After Tallis’s death, the licence passed wholly into Byrd’s hands: he was an astute businessman and well able to look after himself during protracted litigation over ownership of the property in Essex to which he moved in 1593 with his second wife.

Like Tallis, Byrd was an ardent Catholic as well as being a royal musician and wrote for both the Roman and English Churches (which says something for the state of religious tolerance under Elizabeth I, though it must be said that much of his Latin music was written for private worship). Byrd’s range was far wider than Tallis’s, however, and his liturgical music, motets, madrigals, chamber and keyboard works show him to be among the most complete musicians of the age.

What exactly did he add to the musical language? Just as JS Bach was to do, Byrd combined the passionate with the intellectual. He was adventurous in his harmony and experiments with structure, the music had great rhythmic variety and complex syncopation to an unprecedented degree, and he was more free in his melodic ideas than his contemporaries. Listening to Byrd’s music you can hear many apparently ‘wrong notes’ (discords) where the independent intertwining melodic parts clash harmonically in passing before being resolved. Such collisions seem totally logical – and nothing out of the ordinary to our modern ears – but Byrd was at the cutting edge of new music. ‘What I have written are not misprints,’ he once said. Obviously he felt a need to make this clear!

 

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