The Life and Musical Career Perspective of William Byrd

Categories: Composers

Perhaps I did not acknowledge how fortunate I was to have such a long musical career under the Tudor monarchy in England during the second half of the sixteenth century. Upon my death, I was recognized in the Old Cheque-book of the Chapel Royal of London as “William Byrd, Father of Musick”l and died a wealthy man. My career as an Anglican composer was characterized by periods of constant vigilance, anxiety, and longing, and such emotions coupled with my own musical talent spurred the creation of a variety of both secular and religious works.

If not for Queen Elizabeth I’s tolerance, my stubborn Catholicism would likely have been reprimanded, and I would not have a great influence on the English Renaissance. My roughly 470 compositions of motets, masses, instrumental consorts, madrigals, keyboard (virginal) music, and anthems reflect my life story that spanned the time of religious controversies during the Reformation in England and paved new pathways for successive composers of Europe to explore.

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Little is known about the first two decades of my life, but in “a legal document from October 1598, I claimed to be ‘of the age of 58 years or thereabouts,” which suggests I was born in the year 1540. I grew up in a large musical family in London. My father, Thomas Byrd, was “one of the singers who earned sevenpence a day in the Chapel Royal at the end of Henry VIII’s reign [… and] he was responsible for entering all details in the account book whenever a singer was away from work or a new member was appointed to the choir,” deeming the Byrd house a legendary signpost for foreign musicians.

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Although two of my six other siblings, Symond and John, were choirboys at St. Paul’s Cathedral, I likely received my education as a chorister at the Chapel Royal under the eminent gentleman Thomas Tallis. When I was a young teenager, Tallistaught me how to play keyboard instruments and write some of the plainsong hymns that monks had chanted, many of which I later used in my own motets, -along with rounds and canons.

The existing repertory of sacred music underwent radical changes during my childhood, and the traditions of improvising polyphony and stylized Latin chant were disappearing in favor of syllabic and less elaborate English music that represented textual clarity. Despite the volatile musical consequences of the early Reformation, I managed to develop a keen skill for writing in polyphonic style. In 1553, I made my debut as a composer with three verses in a lengthy four-voice setting of the Latin psalm “In exitu Israel.” That year, Queen Mary I succeeded Edward VI to the Tudor throne and reestablished Catholic worship in England, and I worked hastily with William Mundy and John Sheppard to restore the tradition of polyphonic Latin liturgy. My verses known by the words “Similes illusfiant” demonstrate my early ability to write imitative counterpoint derived from a cantus firmus. Melodic gestures of expanding intervals and reoccurring 6-5 progressions against the bass are some aspects of musical language that indicate the budding of my own style.” Since the time of Mary I’s death in 1558 to the end of my career, my outward musical preference became increasingly Catholic. I believed that “Catholic liturgical music was that higher art. [. . . l] was gifted to bring perfection to the words of God, and the only way to accomplish this was to write for the Catholic liturgy.”

When Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne, Protestants declared that Catholic music was cluttered and impure because of the complex, rich polyphony that was developing and distracting attention away from the words. However, the queen herself was generally tolerant, stating early in her reign, “some think one thing, some another, and only God can say whose judgment is best.”?The music I contributed to the English repertoire during my appointment as master of the choristers and organist in the Lincoln Cathedral from 1563 to 1572 caught the attention of the Queen, and it was during this time that I met my wife Julian Birley, whom I married in 1568 at the church of St. Margaret’s in the Close 1568 and with whom I had eight children. At Lincoln, I poured out many church anthems, as one of Queen Elizabeth’s minister’s defined: “for the comforting of such as delight in music, it may be permitted that in the beginning or in the end of common prayers … there may be sung a hymn or suchlike song to the praise of God, in the best sort of melody and music that may be conveniently devised …”8 One of my most celebrated ecclesiastical works in this new English anthem style was “O Lord, make they servant Elizabeth,” a prayer in the queen’s honor that demonstrated Elizabethan ideals of musical sophistication with complex voice interaction.

Inlate 1572, I earned a shared position with Tallis as organist and Gentleman’ of the Chapel Royal, “providing the music for church services in the chapel of whichever royal palace the sovereign happened to be staying in at the time.”’My days at the Chapel Royal were the height of my career.I was forever loyal to Queen Elizabeth, who played several musical instruments herself, and in return, she revered my music. In 1575, she granted Tallis and mea patent to import music from foreign sources and a monopoly over printing and selling music in England for twenty-one years. This privilege allowed us to publish Cantiones, “first printed English music with Latin texts.”: Tallis and I each contributed seventeen motets to this publication to mark the seventeenth anniversary of Elizabeth’s rule, defying those zealots who believed that Latin was superstitious.

Byrd’s life as a devout Catholic was a living contradiction. He eventually retired from serving in the Chapel Royal and semi-retired to Essex in the early 1590s, becoming increasingly religious later in life. Byrd wrote a multitude of different types of music during Elizabeth’s “Golden Age” of tolerance, but his most illustrious musical legacy is Catholic music. In the patronage of the Petre family, a wealthy Roman Catholic name trusted by the Crown, Byrd assumed the challenge of writing his only three polyphonic masses, one each for three, four, and five voices.Because a mass had not been composed in England since Tallis in the 1550s, Byrd decided to completely renovate the polyphonic standardsof the mass form.

Time was nearing the turn of the seventeenth century, and after decades of experience composing Latin motets and large scale vocal works, Byrd was prepared to write Mass-settings that would continue to be sung beyond his lifespan. I will concentrate on the “Credo” portion of his Mass for Five Voices, the longest text of the Ordinary Massthat masks its wordiness through beautiful music that whisks one away to a glorious time and place. The original manuscript copies of Byrd’s Masses dating from late 1594 or early 1595 had no title page, but his name appears on every page. The word “Mass” was contaminated in Elizabethan times, and “a seventeenth-century catalogue refers to them as Kyries: perhaps the publisher safeguarded himself by bringing them out under this less dangerous title [since England typically did not include a Kyrie before Byrd’s publication.” The Masses were likely intended for a number of Catholic households to sing underground, and Byrd had to have them published for to circulate among these private spheres.

The interaction of the voice parts provides some evidence about who performed this piece and where. The “Credo” is unusual for a mass of five voices; although five voices are involved in this piece, the words are astoundingly clear throughout, consistent with Catholic value of the liturgy.Furthermore, the doubling of the tenor parts is nontraditional, leading the Mass for Five Voices to have “more in common with the Cantiones collections.”18The addition of an extra voice suggests that a large recusant choir was available to sing and add a richer quality to the music, a luxury that Byrd surely would have reveled in. Yet, the authentic performance setting of the five-voice mass is unknown. Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices is unlike the Ordinary Mass settings of other polyphonic composers on the European continent. During the 16th century, cyclic Masses were the principal technique to make sense of multiple portions of the Mass.

Palestrina, an Italian Renaissance composer in Italy, wrote copious parody masses with several sources for polyphonic voices, while Josquin des Pres is well known for his paraphrase masses that were based on a Chant melody, elaborated and ornamenting on in all voices. However, Byrd’s“Credo” has no cantus firmus; nearly the entire piece is comprised of imitative polyphony. Each voice plays an equally active role in the “Credo, “undertakinga wide range and numerous florid scalar runs. Byrd often simplifies nature of the polyphony by pairing off the voices into separate homophonic groups of stylistic patterns, providing a rich, unique, motet-like texture.

The “Credo” is so characteristic because of the engagement between fragments of imitation and unison, which Byrd implicated to illuminate the text. Instead of leavingout entire sections of the Creed, such as cutting out from “sedet ad dexteramPatris (according to Scriptures) to “Et expect resurrectionemmortuorum” (I confess one baptism for remission of sins), nearly a third of the text, as Tallis had done, Byrd managed to include the whole text. By dividing the piece into three overarching sections, at m. 34 on the words “per quem Omnia facta sun” (by whom all things made were), m. 77 “judicarevivos et mortuos, cujusregni non erit finis “to judge living and dead, of whose kingdom their will be no end”, and the final cadence on “Et vitamvanturisaeculi, Amen” at m. 124, Byrd conveys the beginning, middle, and end of Jesus’s life and the ongoing nature of humanity and the Catholic religion.

The decision to divide the piece rather than sacrifice text reflects Byrd’s dedication to the scripture and the meaning of the words. On a micro scale, Byrd encompassed multiple cadences that split the piece into dozens of sections. After almost every phrase, there is a momentary harmonic pause in the music. Byrd uses five voices to his advantage, varying the texture in the piece frequently, especially at the cadences to entail a sense of forward motion even when there is a break in text. In the opening measures after the brief solo introduction, the top three voices engage in imitation at the fifth, but varying lengths of sparsely placed longer notes allow all of the voices to come together by the time the two lower voices join in. At the end of m. 5, the soprano, alto, and one tenor hold a consonant major third interval while the second tenor and the bass commencethe next line “visibiliumomnium …” Byrd frequently utilizes homophony at the ends and beginnings of phrases to mark sections. The composer employs this same technique in m. 24-25, m. 67, m. 86, and various other places in his piece. Examples of word emphasis are highlighted in the textural variation of the piece.

Dynamic levels naturally lessen when there are fewer voices involved or intensify when all of the voices sing together, drawing attention to important phrases. At m. 51, the unison on the words “Crucifix etiampronobis sub Pontio Pilato” (Crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate), voices move at a similar pace, with different parts taking on suspensions and long notes, creating a softer texture, evoking the somber mood of how Jesus’ crucifixion. Contrarily, the homophony of the words “Et resurrexittertia die secundumscripturas” (And he rose third day, according to Scriptures) that starts in the bass and contratenoronly a few measures later in m. 56-57 illustrates strength, creating excitement as the upper voices imitate the upward motif from the lower two in exact repetition. Thomas Morley, a foremost member of the English Madrigal School who studied with Byrd in London around the 1570s, had expounded word painting “as little more than common sense,” and Byrd references Morley and the popular word-painting trend of madrigal composers in his five-part “Credo.” The onlywell-defined instances of word painting occur on the words “descendit” (descended) on the word “ascendit” (ascended).

Not only does Byrd apply predictable downward melodic motion on the word “descendit,” but also he experiments with rhythmic duration to portray the word’s meaning. In m. 38-39, Byrd introduces “descendit” in the bass andcontratenor as descending half notes, which turn into waves of ascending and descending quarter notes in the bass and alto from m. 40-41, imitating the speedily spinning sensation one gets when they fall from the sky. The words “ascendit” in m. 62-63 both ascend melodically and in pitch range, starting from the first tenor all the way up to the soprano starting either with a skip of a third or a fourth and proceeding in steps for an octave, conveying Jesus’ complete rise into heaven. A keyboard reduction in the score demonstrates the range of consonant intervals and accidentals in addition to perfect fifths and octaves. In this primarily imitative piece, there are specific instances of chromaticism that Byrd did not repeat in multiple voices by accident. In fact, Byrd uses so many small reoccurring motifs that if the lyrics of each voice part were different, one would be inclined to label this piece a motet.

Byrd includes accidentals in m. 21, the phrase “lumen de lumine,” because the phrase is a rough inversion of the notes for “Deum de Deo” in m. 20. The most prominent instance of imitation is in the final cadence from m. 121-124 on “Amen,” in which nearly all five voices repeat the three-note lower neighbor tone motif. Such instances form a unity between all of the voices, perhaps reflecting the unity of a small private Catholic congregation. There is rarely ever a motif that does not get repeated or toyed with in another voice in some way. Even florid runs such as the melisma on “adoratur” (proceeds in m. 89 gets repeated in the alto in 91-92, putting newfound emphasis on words other than the typically recognized lines of verse that pertain to the Jesus narrative. Queen Elizabeth, who was crucial to Byrd’s prosperity and survival, died in 1603.

Byrd, 63 years old at the time, wrote to the Earl of Salisbury, Chief Secretary to Elizabeth’s Protestant successor, James I, asking for respect of his recusancy, and the King conceded. In 1605 and 1607, respectively, Byrd published two books entitled Gradualia, which involvedvarious sections of the Proper Mass for the different festivals of the church year, including the big feasts for the Virgin Mary. This publication immediately following the 1605 Gunpowder Plot was bold, since in it, “Byrd’s obstinacy was out for the world, and the crown, to see,” and Byrd had to withdraw the book until it could be reissued in 1610. At age 83, Byrd died and was buried near his wife at the Parish Church in Stondon Massey. As a Catholic, he has no gravestone and would have been buried at night by candlelight. Yet, in his will, Byrd stated that he wished to die in the faith by which he lived.

Whether he made music for the public favor, for himself, for god, or whether he composed virginal consorts or English psalms, his music was imbued with the rare passion that results from trying to maintain the loyalty to ones’ true religion in a precarious time period, ultimately expressing his talent for versatility and pushing the composer to his limits.


  1. Bacon, Ariel Foshay. “William Byrd: Political And Recusant Composer.” Musical Offerings: Soli Deo Gloria 3.1 (2012): 13-25. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.
  2. Brett, Philip, Joseph Kerman, and Davitt Moroney. William Byrd and His Contemporaries: Essays and a Monograph. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Print.
  3. Byrd, William. “Credo.” Mass for Five Voices. Ed. Edmund H. Fellowes. London: Stainer& Bell, c. 1922. 15-37. Print.
  4. Byrd, William. “Mass for Five Voices – 3. Credo.” Byrd: Mass for Four Voices/Mass for Five Voices.Perf. Choir of St. John’s College. Cond. George Guest. EMI, 1986. CD.
  5. Byrd, William. “Mass for Five Voices: Credo.” Byrd: Mass For Five Voices With TehPropers For All Saints’ Day. Perf. Christ Church Cathedral Choir. Dir. Stephen Darlington. Nimbus Records, 1990. CD.
  6. Gleason, Harold, and Warren Becker. Music in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. 3rd ed. Bloomington, Ind.: Frangipani Press, 1981. Holst, Imogen. Byrd. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972. Print.
  7. Kerman, Joseph. “Music and Politics: The Case of William Byrd (1540-1623).” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 144, no. 3 (2000): 275-87.
  8. McCarthy, Kerry. Byrd. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print. Playing Elizabeth’s Tune: Catholic Composer and Protestant Queen. Directed by Peter Phillips. Performed by Tallis Scholars. England, 2006. Web. v=Ocd9 6IISRk
  9. “What Is the Translation of the “Credo”?” About. Accessed November 21, 2014.
  10. Wulstan, David. “Birdus tantum natus decorare magistrum,” in Byrd Studies, edited by Alan Brown and Richard Turbet, 63-82. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Print.

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The Life and Musical Career Perspective of William Byrd. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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