Childhood & Early Life
William Byrd was born in London into a family of gentlemen, the lowest rank of English gentry. His father, Thomas Byrd, was a little known musician. His mother’s name was Margery Byrd.
Although William’s year of birth is often taken as 1540, there is a controversy about it. If we go by his will, which is dated 15 November 1622 and which states he was 80 years old at the time of its making, he was born sometime in 1542 or 1543.
However, another document made on 2 October 1598 and written in his own hand, states he was at that time about 58 years old. This puts his date of birth back to 1539 or 1540.
William had two elder brothers; Symond and John and four sisters; Alice, Barbara, Mary, and Martha. Although the brothers grew up to be London merchants, all three of them began their training in music at the age of seven.
Later Symond and John joined the choir of St. Paul Cathedral while William became a chorister at the Chapel Royal. Here he received training under the Master of Children Thomas Tallis, who was also a famed composer.
During this period young Byrd composed a number of pieces. Among them, one on psalm ‘In exitu Israel’ was composed with John Sheppard and William Mundy. Other than that, it is possible that he may have also composed pieces on ‘Easter responsory Christus resurgens’ and ‘Alleluia confitemini.’
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In 1563, Byrd was appointed as the Master of Children at the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln. It was probably his first official appointment and came with an impressive salary.
His tenure at Lincoln was musically very productive. His ‘Short Service’, with clear words and simple musical texture, was written during this period. Other than that, he also wrote a number of extensive keyboard fantasias and composed a few songs for voice.
’Ground in Gamut’, ‘The Hunt's Up’, ‘Gypsies’ Round’ are some of his well known creations of this period. Besides, historians have reasons to believe—although they were published later—motets like ‘Libera me’, ‘Domine’, ‘de morte aeterna’, and ‘Attollite portas’ were produced during this time.
However, the period was not without trouble. On 19 November 1569, he was briefly suspended from his duties. This happened because the puritans in the Lincoln Church complained about his organ playing, which often exceeded the acceptable Anglican limits.
In 1572, Byrd left Lincoln Church to become the Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Since it was a part of the Royal Household formed to take care of the sovereign’s spiritual needs, the move helped him in many ways.
Queen Elizabeth I, who was fond of elaborate rituals as well as compositions, indirectly helped him to widen his scope as composer. Moreover, it also enabled him to come in contact with the English noblemen at the Court, many of whom later became his patrons.
Another advantage was that, at Royal Chapel, he had to undertake the duties of an organist jointly with Thomas Tallis. They eventually developed a close relationship both professionally and personally, which had positive consequences on their music.
In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I jointly granted them patent for the importing, printing and publishing of music and ruled music paper. Taking its advantage, they jointly published ‘Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur’, a collection of 34 Latin motets dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I.
Unfortunately, the venture was financially unsuccessful and in 1577, the duo petitioned to the Queen for financial help. Subsequently, they were granted leasehold on lands in East Anglia and the West Country for a period of 21 years. Also in 1577, Byrd moved away from London to Harlington in Middlesex.
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Although Byrd was born Protestant, by early 1570s, he had begun to lean increasingly towards Roman Catholicism. In 1777, the very year they moved to Harlington, his wife was cited as recusant.
In spite of it, Byrd’s loyalty to the crown was never doubted. However in 1583, he got into serious trouble for his association with many Catholic noblemen, suspected of involvement with Throckmorton Plot and in 1584, his name too was included in the recusant list.
Tallis died in 1585. For a brief period, Byrd was also suspended from Chapel Royal and restrictions were placed on his movements. All these motivated him to concentrate on his music and by 1588 he published his collection ‘Psalmes, sonets, & songs of sadnes and pietie.’
In 1589, he published ‘Songs of Sundrie Natures’. Subsequently, he wrote thirty seven motets, which were published separately in two books of ‘Cantiones sacrae’, one in 1589 and the other in 1591.
While his earlier motets, written with Tallis in 1575 were Anglican in tone, he now began to lean more towards Catholic music and themes such as persecution of the chosen people or the coming of deliverance. However, he dedicated most of these motets to powerful noblemen of that time.
Also in 1591, Byrd published a manuscript volume of ‘My Ladye Nevell Booke’, consisting of 42 pieces for keyboard. Although the music was copied by John Baldwin, the pieces were selected, organized and edited by Byrd.
Apart from these, Byrd also wrote significant numbers of consort pieces out of which the ‘Browning’ and the ‘Goodnight Ground’ were most significant. However, music historians are of the opinion that he had written a few more, but their manuscripts were lost.
In 1593, Byrd left Harlington and settled in Stondon Massey, Essex, where one of his patrons, a discrete Catholic and a landowner, Sir John Petre used to live. Here he began writing liturgical music for different feasts of the Catholic Church calendar.
Unfortunately, his association with Catholicism was noted by the authority. He had to appear at the quarterly local assizes regularly and pay heavy fines for recusancy. It was his patrons, who made sure that he escaped more severe punishment.
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When in 1603, James I succeeded Elizabeth I to the English throne, life for the Catholics became temporarily better. Byrd took the opportunity to publish the three masses he had written earlier. Subsequently in 1605 and 1607, he published two books of ‘Gradualia’.
These two books mainly consisted of settings of the Proprium Missae for the major feasts of the church calendar. Thus they actually supplement the Mass Ordinary cycles published earlier. However, they did not become as popular as his earlier works.
One reason for such lack of appreciation might have been the failed Gunpowder Plot in 1605 following which prosecution against the Catholics was renewed once more. Byrd also took care to omit a few sensitive pieces from his 1607 ‘Gradualia’.
In spite of anti-Catholic sentiments, Byrd republished the ‘Gradualia’ with new title pages in 1610. At the same time, he also wrote a few pieces for the Anglican Church.
‘Psalms, Songs and Sonnets’, his last collection of English songs, was published in 1611. It contained sacred as well as secular music. Some of his most famous compositions like ‘Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles’, ‘This day Christ was born’ and ‘Have mercy upon me’ had been included in this book.
Subsequently, Byrd began to slow down. In the winter of 1612-1613, Byrd wrote eight keyboard pieces for ‘Parthenia’, a collection of 21 keyboard pieces issued on the occasion of James I's daughter Princess Elizabeth’s wedding.
In 1614, he contributed four English anthems to Sir William Leighton's ‘Teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowfull Soule’, a collection of fifty-five pieces by twenty-one composers. It was his last published work.