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William Byrd

Birthplace: London, England
Death: Died in London, England
Immediate Family:

Son of Thomas Byrd
Husband of Julian Byrd
Father of at least 7 children Byrd
Brother of Symond Byrd; John Byrd and 4 sisters Byrd

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Immediate Family

About William Byrd

William Byrd, known as "the father of English musick": he was the last great English composer of Catholic church music, as well as the first of the Elizabethan "golden" age of secular music.

William Byrd music samples: "Fantasia #2"; "O mistress mine"; "The Barley Break"

William Byrd (1540 or late 1539 – 4 July 1623) was an English composer of the Renaissance. He wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard (the so-called Virginalist school) and consort music.


Knowledge of Byrd's biography expanded in the late 20th century, thanks largely to the research of John Harley (Harley, 1997). Following the discovery of a document dated 2 October 1598 in which Byrd's age is given as "58 years or there abouts," it now appears that he was born in 1540. The older dating 1542–3 is derived from Byrd's will (endorsed on 22 November 1622) which describes him as 'in the 80th year of my age'. It now becomes clear that it must have been drafted about three years earlier than the date of endorsement. Byrd was born in London, the son of a Thomas Byrd (not Thomas Byrd of the Chapel Royal) about whom little is known. Byrd had two brothers, Symon'd and John, and four sisters. It is clear from a reference in the prefatory material in the Tallis/Byrd Cantiones of 1575 that Byrd was a pupil of Thomas Tallis, then the leading composing member of the Chapel Royal Choir. Byrd also worked in collaboration with two other Chapel Royal singing-men, John Sheppard and William Mundy, on one of his earliest compositions, a contribution to a joint setting of the alternatim psalm In exitu Israel composed for the procession to the font at the Paschal Vigil. As an item for the Sarum liturgy this was presumably composed near the end of the reign of Mary Tudor (1553–1558), whose Catholic beliefs impelled her to revive Sarum liturgical practices during her brief reign. In view of these contacts it is reasonable to speculate that Byrd was a Chapel Royal choirboy, though the surviving records do not name the choristers individually.

Early years

A few other compositions by Byrd should probably be assigned to his teenage years. Apart from his contribution to In exitu Israel (Similes illis fiant a4), these include his setting of the Easter responsory Christus resurgens (a4) which was not published until 1605, but which as another Sarum liturgical unit could also have been composed during Mary's reign. Some of the hymns and antiphons for keyboard and for consort may also date from this period, though it is also possible that the consort pieces may have been composed in Lincoln for the musical training of choirboys.

Byrd's first known professional employment was as organist and choirmaster of Lincoln Cathedral, a post which he held from 25 March 1563. Residing at 6 Minster Yard Lincoln, he remained in post until 1572. His period at Lincoln was not entirely trouble-free, for on 19 November 1569 the Dean and Chapter cited him for ‘certain matters alleged against him’ as the result of which his salary was suspended. Since Puritanism was influential at Lincoln, it is possible that the allegations were connected with over-elaborate choral polyphony or organ playing. A second directive dated 29 November issued detailed instructions regarding Byrd's use of the organ in the liturgy. On 14 September 1568 Byrd married Julian Birley, a long-lasting and fruitful union which produced at least seven children.

The 1560s were also important formative years for Byrd the composer. The Short Service, an unpretentious setting of items for the Anglican Matins, Communion and Evensong services, which seems to designed to comply with the Protestant reformers’ demand for clear words and simple musical textures, may well have been composed during the Lincoln years. It is at any rate clear that Byrd was composing Anglican church music, for when he left Lincoln the Dean and Chapter continued to pay him at a reduced rate on condition that he would send the cathedral his compositions. Byrd had also taken serious strides with instrumental music. The seven In Nomine settings for consort (two a4 and five (a5), at least one of the consort fantasias (Neighbour F1 a6) and a number of important keyboard works have been assigned to the Lincoln years. The latter include the Ground in Gamut (described as 'Mr Byrd's old ground') by his future pupil Thomas Tomkins, the A minor fantasia and probably the first of Byrd's great series of keyboard pavans and galliards, a composition which was transcribed by Byrd from an original for five-part consort. All these show Byrd gradually emerging as a major figure on the Elizabethan musical landscape.

Some sets of keyboard variations, such as The Hunt's Up and the imperfectly preserved set on Gypsies’ Round also seem to be early works. As we have seen, Byrd had begun setting Latin liturgical texts as a teenager, and he seems to have continued to do so at Lincoln. Two exceptional large-scale psalm motets, Ad Dominum cum tribularer (a8) and Domine quis habitabit (a9), are Byrd's contribution to a genre cultivated by Robert White and Robert Parsons. De lamentatione, another early work, is a contribution to the Elizabethan practice of setting groups of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah following the format of the Tenebrae lessons sung in the Catholic rite during the last three days of Holy Week, other contributors including Tallis, White, Parsley and the elder Ferrabosco. It is likely that this practice was an expression of Elizabethan Catholic nostalgia, as a number of the texts suggest.

The Chapel Royal

Byrd obtained the prestigious post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 following the death of Robert Parsons, a gifted composer who drowned in the Trent near Newark on 25 January of that year. Almost from the outset Byrd is named as ‘organist’, which however was not a designated post but an occupation for any Chapel Royal member capable of filling it. This career move vastly increased Byrd's opportunities to widen his scope as a composer and also to make contacts at Court. Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603) was a moderate Protestant who eschewed the more extreme forms of Puritanism and retained a fondness for elaborate ritual, besides being a music lover and keyboard player herself. Byrd's output of Anglican church music (defined in the strictest sense as sacred music designed for performance in church) is surprisingly small, but it stretches the limits of elaboration then regarded as acceptable by some reforming Protestants who regarded highly wrought music as a distraction from the Word of God.

Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (1575)

In 1575 Byrd and Tallis were jointly granted a patent for the printing of music and ruled music paper for 21 years, one of a number of patents issued by the Crown for the printing of books on various subjects. The two musicians used the services of the French Huguenot printer Thomas Vautrollier, who had settled in England and previously produced an edition of a collection of Lassus chansons in London (Receuil du mellange, 1570). The two monopolists took advantage of the patent to produce a grandiose joint publication under the title Cantiones que ab argumento sacrae vocantur consisting of 34 Latin motets dedicated to the Queen herself and accompanied by elaborate prefatory matter including poems in Latin elegiacs by the schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster and the young courtier Ferdinand Heybourne (aka Richardson). There are 17 motets each by Tallis and Byrd, one for each year of the Queen's reign.


From the early 1570s onwards Byrd became increasingly involved with Catholicism, which, as the scholarship of the last half-century has demonstrated, became a major factor in his personal and creative life. As John Harley has shown, it is probable that Byrd's parental family were Protestants, though whether by deeply-felt conviction or nominal conformism is not clear. Byrd himself may have held Protestant beliefs in his youth, for a recently discovered fragment of a setting of an English translation of Luther's hymn Erhalt uns, Herr, bei Deinem Wort, which bears an attribution to 'Birde' includes the line 'From Turk and Pope defend us Lord'. However, from the 1570s onwards he is found associating with known Catholics, including Lord Thomas Paget, to whom he wrote a petitionary letter on behalf of an unnamed friend in 1573. Byrd's wife Julian was first cited for recusancy (refusing to attend Anglican services) at Harlington in Middlesex, where the family now lived, in 1577. Byrd himself appears in the recusancy lists from 1584.

Cantiones sacrae (1589 and 1591)

Thirty-seven of Byrd's motets were published in two sets of Cantiones sacrae, which appeared in 1589 and 1591. Together with two sets of English songs, discussed below, these collections, dedicated to powerful Elizabethan lords (Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester and John Lumley, 1st Baron Lumley), probably formed part of Byrd's campaign to re-establish himself in Court circles after the reverses of the 1580s. They may also reflect the fact that Byrd's fellow monopolist Tallis and his printer Thomas Vautrollier had died, thus creating a more propitious climate for publishing ventures. Since many of the motet texts of the 1589 and 1591 sets are pathetic in tone, it is not surprising that many of them continue and develop the 'affective-imitative' vein found in some motets from the 1570s, though in a more concise and concentrated form. Domine praestolamur (1589) is a good example of this style, laid out in imitative paragraphs based on subjects which characteristically emphasize the expressive minor second and minor sixth, with continuations which subsequently break off and are heard separately (another technique which Byrd had learnt from his study of Ferrabosco). Byrd evolved a special 'cell' technique for setting the petitionary clauses such as ‘miserere mei’ or ‘libera nos Domine’ which form the focal point for a number of the texts. Particularly striking examples of these are the final section of Tribulatio proxima est (1589) and the multi-sectional Infelix ego (1591), a large-scale motet which takes its point of departure from Tribue Domine of 1575.

Anglican church music

Byrd's staunch adherence to Catholicism did not prevent him from contributing memorably to the repertory of Anglican church music. Byrd's small output of church anthems ranges in style from relatively sober early examples (O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our queen (a6) and How long shall mine enemies (a5) ) to other, evidently late works such as Sing joyfully (a6) which is close in style to the English motets of Byrd's 1611 set, discussed below. Byrd also played a role in the emergence of the new verse anthem, which seems to have evolved in part from the practice of adding vocal refrains to consort songs. Byrd's four Anglican service settings range in style from the unpretentious Short Service, already discussed, to the magnificent so-called Great Service, a grandiose work which continues a tradition of opulent settings by Richard Farrant, William Mundy and Robert Parsons. Byrd's setting is on a massive scale, requiring five-part Decani and Cantoris groupings in antiphony, block homophony and five, six and eight-part counterpoint with verse (solo) sections for added variety. This service setting, which includes an organ part, must have been sung by the Chapel Royal Choir on major liturgical occasions in the early seventeenth century, though its limited circulation suggests that many other cathedral choirs must have found it beyond them. Nevertheless, the source material shows that it was sung in York Minster from c. 1618. The Great Service was in existence by 1606 (the last copying date entered in the earliest surviving manuscript source) and may date back as far as the 1590s.

Last works

Byrd also contributed eight keyboard pieces to Parthenia (winter 1612–13), a collection of 21 keyboard pieces engraved by William Hole and containing music by Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons. It was issued in celebration of the forthcoming marriage of James I's daughter Princess Elizabeth to Frederick V, Elector Palatine, which took place on 14 February 1613. The three composers are nicely differentiated by seniority, with Byrd, Bull and Gibbons represented respectively by eight, seven and six items. Byrd's contribution includes the famous Earl of Salisbury Pavan, composed in memory of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, who had died on 24 May 1612, and its two accompanying galliards. Byrd's last published compositions are four English anthems printed in William Leighton's ' Teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowfull Soule (1614).

Byrd remained in Stondon Massey until his death on 4 July 1623, which was noted in the Chapel Royal Check Book in a unique entry describing him as ‘a Father of Musick’. Despite repeated citations for recusancy and swingeing fines, he died a rich man, having rooms at the time of his death at the London home of the Earl of Worcester.

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William Byrd's Timeline

London, England
July 4, 1623
Age 84
London, England
London, UK