William Byrd - Biography


William Byrd the great English Renaissance composer whose long career spans the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First and James the First was born somewhere between 1540 and 1542 in London and died in Essex on July the 4th 1623. It has been assumed for centuries that he was the son of Thomas Byrd a famed chorister of the Chapel Royal modern scholarship seems to prove he was in fact born to another evidently unmusical Thomas Byrd. Byrd was in all likelihood the student of Thomas Tallis who was himself a great composer and was thirty five years Byrd’s senior. Byrd may have been a boy chorister in the Chapel Royal. Byrd was a Catholic who had to survive in the primarily Anglican society of Elizabethan England. Byrd’s first appointment was as organist and choirmaster in Lincoln Cathedral from 1563 to 1572.Byrd in 1568 married Julian Birley whom he was happily married to for many years and produced at least seven children. During these years he composed a number of keyboard works for the virginal an early ancestor of the harpsichord including Consort Fantasias, Pavans and Galliards and the well known Ground in Gamut.


The next phase of Byrd’s career is when he is made a Gentleman of the Chapelle Royal in 1572 This position had connections to the Royal Court (Elizabeth was a skilled musician and musical enthusiast).Byrd in around 1575 was to compose the first of his choral masterpieces the Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur a series of 34 Latin Motets set to secular texts and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. This was actually a joint venture with Tallis the publication didn’t find many subscribers and put both composers in a financial crisis.


Byrd’s Catholicism put him in a difficult position when in the 1570’s Pope Pius the Fifth released a papal bull declaring that that English Catholics did not have to offer allegiance to the Queen. This put Catholics in public life under suspicion Byrd was to temporarily lose his position in the Chapel Royal and was no doubt put under surveillance.


Byrd in the 1580’s turned to Catholic liturgical works composing more than fifty Motets to Latin texts. In the late 1580’s Byrd was to turn to a series of English Song Books that include settings of Psalm’s, Sonnets and Songs. In 1589 Byrd was to compile what was to be his instrumental masterpiece My Ladye Nevells Booke a wide ranging group of keyboard pieces that were compiled with the help of John Baldwin an apprentice of Byrd’s. This set of pieces is one of the earliest examples of program music Byrd imitates the military sounds of battles and parodying various social pastimes of the Elizabethan Era. In the early 1590’s Byrd was to write a number of significant instrumental consort music that include Fantasias, Grounds, and a set of variations entitled Browning.


In the mid 1590’s Byrd moved from London to a little village with the unusual name of Stondon Massey in Essex where he now resides in a home Stondon Place. The move evidently is made to be close to his current patron Sir John Petre He becomes embroiled in a series of law suits with a Joanna Shelly who claims ownership of Stondon Place ,he eventually prevails .


In the closing years of the Sixteenth Century he envisions a grand plan to compose a series of liturgical works to celebrate all the major feast days of the Catholic calendar. His first part of the plan is to compose his celebrated Masses in Three, Four and Five Voices. In between the years of 1605 and 1607 Byrd was to complete the next phase of the plan when he was to compose the Gradualia a series of two cycles of motets amounting to 109 motets.


Byrd though a Catholic continued to write a significant amount of Anglican choral music including a number of Anthems for Anglican services. Byrd’s position in society was to become easier during the reign of James the First King of Scotland who succeeded Elizabeth the First upon her death in 1603.James though nominally Protestant was the son of the martyred Catholic Mary Queen of Scott’s and his court was tolerant towards Catholics. These works were to culminate in one of Byrd’s finest works the Great Service. In 1611 when Byrd was already seventy or approaching it he wrote another series of English songs that and included a series of Psalms, Songs and Sonnets. Byrd in his final years composed a series of eight pieces to a collaborative set of consort pieces with John Bull and Orlando Gibbons entitled Parthenia (this includes one of Byrd’s best known consort pieces The Earl of Salisbury Pavan. Byrd’s last composition was four English Anthems in 1614. Byrd died on July 4th 1623 in Stondon Massey.


Byrd’s reputation amongst musical scholars has been secure for centuries his music though until fairly recently was known primarily by specialists in Renaissance and Elizabethan music. Recordings starting in the 1950’s primarily by the English L’Oiseau Lyre label started to record his music in historically correct performances. In the CD era his music has been systematically recorded by such artists as Christopher Hogwood, the Tallis Scholars under Peter Philips and a comprehensive series with Cardinal’s Musick for ASV. The full scope of Byrd’s greatness can now be appreciated by the interested lay person.

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