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Byrd, William (c. 1543–1623) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

chapel london royal byrd’s

William Byrd, the greatest musician of his age, was probably born in the year 1543, but nothing certain is known about his parentage or early life. In light of his subsequent career, his father is commonly presumed to be one Thomas Byrd, a member of the Chapel Royal during the reigns of Edward VI and Queen Mary, compositions by whom appear in manuscript with others by Thomas Tallis, a distinguished member of the chapel.

Byrd was certainly associated with Tallis and the Chapel Royal from an early period. Anthony à Wood, the Oxford antiquary, affirmed that Byrd had been “bred up under Tallis,” a remark borne out by comments in 1575 from a fellow student. Whatever his parentage, then, Byrd quite probably received his musical training in the Chapel Royal under one of England’s leading musicians.

In 1563, at about twenty years of age, Byrd began serving as organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, appointments he retained for nearly a decade. He may have been responsible for the general schooling of the choirboys in addition to their musical education. Much of his music in English for the Anglican rite, including the Short Service, may have been written at this time, as was much of his early instrumental music. In 1568 he married Juliana Birley at St. Margaret’s-in-the-Close, where his first two children were baptized, circumstances suggesting that Byrd was a conforming recusant at this period of his life.

In February 1570 Byrd was sworn in as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, but he did not relinquish his position at Lincoln Cathedral. Instead he seems to have traveled between the two locations for three years, not leaving Lincoln for London until December 1572, after which time he shared the duties of organist in the chapel with Tallis. There he remained for the next two decades, serving the queen and gaining highly influential patrons. It was a time of extraordinary accomplishment, and most of Byrd’s surviving instrumental music comes from this period.

In 1575, in recognition of the high esteem in which she held them, the queen granted Tallis and Byrd a license giving them a monopoly on the printing of all part-music. The composers responded by publishing Cantiones sacrae , a collection of thirty-four compositions, seventeen each, quite probably, as Denis Stevens suggested, in recognition of the seventeenth year of the queen’s reign. Elizabeth* had doubtless heard some of the anthems performed earlier in the chapel. Byrd’s prominent position in the chapel despite his known Catholicism and his continued composition in Latin is explicable only in terms of the queen’s favor and in light of her personal interest in maintaining Latin for divine services.

Byrd’s Catholicism, moreover, became more pronounced throughout the period. By the late 1570s he had moved to the parish of Harlington, where he and his wife are repeatedly cited for recusancy from 1577 on. His house is cited as a suspected site for recusant gatherings as early as 1580. Byrd seems, in fact, to have been drawn to the underground Jesuit priests. His moving lamentation upon the martyrdom of Edmund Campion, executed in 1581, is an early sign of that allegiance, and over the next few years he is associated with Father Garnet, Robert Southwell,* and Father Weston. Aware of such associations, authorities searched his house and annually saddled Byrd and his wife with stiff fines, but Byrd’s patrons offered protection, and he does not seem to have suffered for his recusancy.

In 1586 Byrd lost his wife, who had borne him at least five children. In 1593 he retired from London (perhaps with his second wife, Ellen) to an estate at Stondon Massey in Essex. He may have been persuaded to undertake such a move by the increased persecution of Catholics on the part of English authorities, which may have made his continued presence in London more than awkward. He retired near his patrons, the Petres, who are associated with many of his later projects. In the dedication of the second volume of the Gradualia to Lord Petre of Writtle, Byrd reports that the compositions have “mostly proceded from your house” and were “plucked as it were from your gardens.”

Byrd was thus apparently found in London less frequently, and he is absent from the records of the Chapel Royal from 1592 to 1623 (apart from two official lists). He may well have served as a gentleman retainer in the Petre family, for he is known to have had a room in the Petres’ house at West Thorndon. Even so, Byrd was still to be found in London on occasion. Certain details point to his active participation in the publication of Parthenia , published during the winter of 1612–13, which contained eight of his keyboard compositions, and his will mentions his apartments in the London house of the earl of Worcester. Byrd may thus have served in his final years as a private musician in more than one household.

Byrd died at Stondon Massey on 4 July 1623. He was presumably buried there in the churchyard, although this is not certain. His will reveals that he died in comfortable circumstances.


No English composer was more cherished in his lifetime. Thomas Morley deemed Byrd a “great master” in 1597, one “never without reverence to be named of the musicians.” When he died, a unique entry in the Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal referred to him as “a Father of Musick.” By the end of the seventeenth century, however, Byrd’s reputation was already in decline.

So ignored were his accomplishments that the industrious musicologist Edmund Fellowes felt that even those in musical circles at the beginning of the century were unaware of his existence. The 300th anniversary of his death in 1923 led to the performance of much of his music, much of it unheard for centuries.

Since then the work of industrious scholars, most notably Edmund Fellowes, Thurston Dart, Joseph Kerman, Philip Brett, Oliver Neighbour, and Alan Brown, has led to the thorough study and publication of most of Byrd’s works, many formerly unavailable or in manuscript, and Byrd has regained the position in which he was held by his contemporaries.

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