William Byrd, classical music composer

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William Byrd


A prolific composer and prominent figure during the English Renaissance, William Byrd was born in London. His exact year of birth is unknown but existing documents suggest he was born in 1539 or 1540. Very little is known of his early music education. Two of his brothers were choristers at St. Paul's Cathedral and Byrd, likewise, may have served with them. However, a reference to Thomas Tallis in the Cantiones sacrae published in 1589 suggests that Byrd may have actually been Tallis's pupil at the Chapel Royal.

His first known professional post, Byrd became organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563 and remained there until 1572. His time in Lincoln, however, was not without troubles and one occasion had his salary suspended because of allegations brought against him. Yet, with Puritanism's influence at Lincoln, it is quite within the realm of possibility that these grievances were little more than overly-ornate choral polyphony or organ playing. Regardless, Byrd's years at Lincoln were formative in his development as a composer, writing both Anglican church music and instrumental music. By the time he left, Byrd was well on his way to becoming a leading musical figure in Elizabethan England.

The unfortunate drowning of Robert Parsons, a gifted composer himself, opened the door for Byrd to be named a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572. Almost immediately, Byrd found himself filling the role of organist and his position allowed him to make important contacts at the court of Queen Elizabeth, who was a music lover and keyboard player herself. Byrd, alongwith with Tallis, also entered into publishing in 1575, obtaining a patent issued by the Crown for the printing of music. In partnership with Thomas Vautrollier, a Huguenot printer, Byrd and Tallis set out on an elaborate publication of thirty-four Latin motets entitled Cantiones que ab argumento sacrae vocantur. Byrd and Tallis each provided seventeen motets, and dedicated their work to the Queen. The publication, however, was a financial failure.

During this time, Byrd became increasing involved in Catholicism, a decision which caused him many troubles for years to come. When in 1570, Pius V's Papal Bull for all intents and purposes made Elizabeth an outlaw of the Catholic Church, Catholics were increasing eyed with suspension, even to the point of sedition. Byrd found an outlet for his Catholic sympathies in the motets he composed during these years. However, he was not able to fully avoid trouble. His association with Lord Thomas Paget, a known Catholic, resulted in 1583 in Byrd's suspension from the Chapel Royal and restrictions placed on his movements. Byrd did ultimately find his way back into the good graces of the Tudor court, due in part to the publication of collections of motets and songs dedicated to two influential members of the Elizabethan nobility. Byrd remained a Catholic and eventually secured permission to practice his religion during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Yet, even then he continued to face troubles until his death.

The 1580s saw an increase in instrumental music from Byrd's pen, both for keyboard and consort music. Around 1594, Byrd entered semi-retirement from the Chapel Royal and he and his family moved to Stondon Massey in Essex where he remained for the rest of his life. The move was likely a strategic one to remain in proximity of his patron Sir John Petre. Petre practiced Catholicism in secret, holding Mass services of his own, with music provided by his servants. On July 14, 1623, Byrd died in Stondon Massey.

Despite securing considerable fame and fortune for himself, which was no small feat for a Catholic in Elizabethan England, Byrd's music was surprisingly of little influence after his death. During his career, he was highly regarded as one of the foremost of English composer. He assimilated the musical styles of England and of the Continent and contributed greatly to the Virginalist school and the development of English consort music. However, little of these influences lasted long past his death. Ironically, his greatest achievement and the one to secure at least some modest place in tradition was his Anglican church music, which continued to be performed into the 18th century.   

Composer Title Date Action
William Byrd O, Mistris Myne, from the Fitswillam Virginal Book 01/21/2009 Play Add to playlist
William Byrd Fantasia in a minor 06/11/2009 Play Add to playlist
William Byrd The Firste Pavian and Galliarde, BK29 12/06/2012 Play Add to playlist
William Byrd Magnificat, from Short Service 01/17/2016 Play Add to playlist
William Byrd O lux beata Trinitas 01/17/2016 Play Add to playlist
William Byrd Galliard, from The Quadran Pavan & Galliard 01/17/2016 Play Add to playlist
William Byrd Pavan, from The Quadran Pavan & Galliard 01/17/2016 Play Add to playlist
William Byrd Agnus Dei, from Mass For Five Voices 01/17/2016 Play Add to playlist