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Byrd, William (1539/40-1623)

William Byrd

born: 1539/40
died: 4 July 1623
country: United Kingdom

It is Byrd’s genius which first attracts musicians and listeners to his music: his fine command of invention and dramatic flow, his subtle melodies and harmonic turns mixed with a sophisticated understanding of the texts that he chose to set. Quite simply he was the finest composer of his age. As if this were not enough, the added dimension of his life as a recusant Catholic in reformed England gives his music, indeed his whole life, an extra degree of fascination. The story of how a man could not only cling to his beliefs but also publish them abroad in musical form when all around him were being attacked for their faith is indeed remarkable.

Byrd’s birth year has now been fixed at 1539 or 1540 (he clearly states his age as 58 in a deposition dated 2 October 1598) but very little is known of his early life. He must have been active in or around Westminster during the reign of Queen Mary in the mid 1550s and before the death of John Sheppard, as Sheppard and Byrd together with the young William Mundy each contributed music for a setting of In exitu Israel. This Psalm, with its specific liturgical function in the Sarum rite, was almost certainly written for Mary’s restored Catholic rite.

His first official post appears to be as Organist of Lincoln Cathedral in 1562. He remained there until the untimely death of the composer Robert Parsons in 1572 allowed Byrd to be appointed to the Chapel Royal in Parsons’ place and thus return to London. His first appearance in print was in 1575 with a joint publication (with his friend and mentor, Thomas Tallis) entitled Cantiones Sacrae. He was exceptionally active in the late 1580s, publishing two secular collections (in 1588 and 1589) and two sacred collections (in 1589 and 1591) within the space of four years.

In the early 1590s Byrd took leave of London for a less public life in Stondon Massey in Essex. Here he became part of the extended Catholic family of Sir William Petre and took part in the recusant ceremonies centred on Ingatestone Hall. He produced music specifically for Catholic liturgies and even dared to publish them. The three settings of the Mass appeared anonymously during the 1590s and two volumes entitled Gradualia were published in 1605 and 1607. Byrd was censured for his faith and called to account but never received stern punishment or any form of deprivation. Perhaps the censors did not believe that music could be dangerous, or could it be that Byrd was so excellent a composer that he was simply beyond reproach?

from notes by Andrew Carwood © 2006


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