Personalities | William Byrd | Renaissance | Classical

English composer

Byrd’s early life is shrouded in mystery. He may have been born in Lincoln, but his formative years must have been spent at least partly in London; at some point in his youth he studied with Tallis.

In 1563 he was made organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral. He married in 1569 and in 1570 moved to London, where he was appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.

During his first successful years in London he was associated with a number of powerful patrons, as well as with his teacher Tallis. In 1575 he and Tallis were granted a monopoly on music printing. The inaugural publication from the press, Byrd’s first book of cantiones sacrae (1589–91), was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. Soon after this his fortunes took a downward turn.

In 1577 his wife, Juliana, was cited for recusancy (refusal to attend Church of England services) and the family endured harassment from that point on. Byrd seems to have remained unintimidated; in 1583 he attended a high-profile gathering in honour of two notorious Jesuits – at that time perhaps the most hated representatives of Roman Catholicism. Byrd himself was cited for recusancy in 1585 and in 1587 was briefly taken into custody. Yet in spite of increasing personal difficulties, Byrd’s professional life seems to have been undamaged by his unwavering and undisguised Catholicism, and he continued to work. In the mid-1580s he composed celebratory pieces for the queen, including the famous ‘Rejoice Unto the Lord’, written for Accession Day in 1586.

Going Solo

In 1587 he revived his career as a publisher, now without his partner Tallis, who had died two years previously. During the 1570s and 80s Byrd composed religious music in both Latin and English. His three books of cantiones sacrae (1575, 1589 and 1591) are Latin motets in the style of Palestrina. Latin was not banned in the Elizabethan church, and the queen herself seems to have preferred it. The large scale and technical difficulty of the music suggests that much of it was intended for the Chapel Royal.

In 1591 Byrd moved with his second wife, Ellen (Juliana had died in 1586), to Essex, where they probably joined a Catholic community under the patronage of the Catholic Petre family. Byrd remained officially on the rolls of the Chapel Royal, but seems to have had little to do with London during this time. His publications after 1590 appear to be a courageous effort to provide a body of music for Catholic worship in England. They include three Masses – one each for four, five and six voices, published in the years 1593–95 – and two books of gradualia (1605 and 1607). The Masses and gradualia are smaller in scale than the earlier cantiones sacrae, in keeping with their intended use by underground Catholic communities lacking large resources. Byrd also left an important repertory of keyboard music, much of it preserved in the manuscript My Ladye...

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