William Byrd

1543–1623

Renaissance

Everyone recognized that William Byrd was a great composer. Some in England called him the ‘father of music’. He wrote nearly 500 works, both religious and secular. These days people sometimes say England hasn’t produced many great composers, but they forget William Byrd. He was also pretty revolutionary: he was one of the first great composers to write music tailor-made for the keyboard – mostly for an early version of the harpsichord called the virginals. These works, many published in My Ladye Nevells Booke, became very popular. He wrote many songs, often accompanied by a group (a ‘consort’) of viols. Viols are like early versions of cellos. But mostly Byrd wrote religious music and there he had a problem.

Just before Byrd was born, Henry VIII had announced himself Head of the Church in England, and England had become a Protestant country – instead of a Catholic one. Suddenly Catholics were badly treated. But Byrd became a Catholic. So then he was in a tricky situation. He did write music for the Church of England, but he went on secretly writing sacred music in Latin for his Catholic friends. The most famous and wonderful of these Catholic works are his three Masses.

Fortunately for Byrd, Queen Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558 (until 1603): she was quite tolerant and even liked Catholic ritual. She was a music-lover and keyboard-player herself and she admired Byrd. So she turned a blind eye to his Catholicism! He was able to keep the Queen’s support and live to a ripe old age. You could say that William Byrd was lucky he was allowed to write music at all.

In fact Byrd and Thomas Tallis had special permission from the Queen to print music – they were the only two people who were allowed – and Byrd made some money from it. He also had many students. When we listen to his pieces, we can’t avoid thinking how strange it is that some of the most beautiful Catholic music was composed in Elizabeth’s Protestant England.

William Byrd, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Listen to a bit of Byrd!

Sellingers Rownde

A sad and simple piece for harpsichord, part of My Ladye Nevells Book. Nobody is sure who Lady Nevell was but, through Byrd’s music, she has become immortal!

Performers: Elizabeth Farr, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.570139-41

Mass for Five Voices: Kyrie

A wonderfully serene work of great beauty. This is the opening movement of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, written for secret Catholic services. The voices, unaccompanied, seem to hover somewhere up there in heaven!

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550574

Quis me statim

The sombre sound of the viols provides the background for the beautiful, rather sad sound of the singer.

Performers: Catherine King, mezzo-soprano; The Rose Consort of Viols

Taken from Naxos 8.554284

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What was Byrd’s religion?

a. Protestant
b. Catholic
c. Methodist

 Which monarch made Byrd and Tallis the only people who could publish sheet music in England?

a. Edward VI
b. Henry VIII
c. Elizabeth I

 Which of these instruments did Byrd write music for?

a. Piano
b. Harpsichord
c. Tuba

 Which of these composers was one of Byrd’s pupils?

a. J.S. Bach
b. Thomas Morley
c. W.A. Mozart

 Which great writer lived at the same time as Byrd?

a. William Shakespeare
b. Charles Dickens
c. Jane Austen


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Byrd was an important teacher. He taught Thomas Morley, Peter Philips, Thomas Tomkins and probably Thomas Weelkes, who all wrote short vocal works called madrigals that we still sing and listen to day.
  2. Byrd was a famous keyboard player. He played both the virginals and the organ.
  3. In 1568, Byrd married a lady called Julian Birley. They had at least seven children.
  4. Queen Elizabeth gave special permission to William Byrd and Thomas Tallis (Byrd’s older friend and teacher) to print sheet music in England. They were the only two composers allowed to do it!
  5. When Byrd was alive people didn’t have birth certificates. So people didn't always know how old they were! Byrd was like that: he was unsure about his age. Today we know only that he was born sometime between 1539 and 1543.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Keyboard Variety


John Come Kiss Me Now (from: The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book)

One of Byrd’s popular pieces for harpsichord or virginals (played here on a harpsichord). Hear how it becomes more twiddly and fancy as it progresses.

Performers: Timothy Roberts, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.550604


Qui passe (for my Lady Nevell)

A bright and quite complicated piece for virginals. It shows that Byrd himself must have been a very good keyboard player. Listen to the difference in sound between the virginals here and the harpsichord in Work 1. The virginals, or virginal, is a simpler and smaller version of the instrument – you can hear that it sounds a bit thinner and lighter than the harpsichord.

Performers: Timothy Roberts, virginals

Taken from Naxos 8.550604


The Marche before the Battell

A grave march. In My Ladye Nevells Booke, this March introduces a colourful series of pieces which describe a battle (‘The Battell’!).

Performers: Elizabeth Farr, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.570139-41


The Flute and the Droome

A good example of Byrd using the harpsichord to imitate the sound of other instruments: the left hand provides a regular drum beat to which soldiers are marching, while the right hand imitates the high sound of the flute.

Performers: Elizabeth Farr, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.570139-41

Secular Pieces (secular = not religious)


Pavane and Galliard

A galliard was a kind of dance, with lots of hops and leaps – a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. It often came after a slower ‘pavane’ – as it does here – with a faster version of the pavane’s music. It has six steps – can you count ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6’ to the music? Both are played by six viols, sounding smooth and polite.

Performers: The Rose Consort of Viols

Taken from Naxos 8.550604


Susanna Fair

Byrd seems to be rather sad thinking about Susanna in this song for soprano. She is accompanied by four viols.

Performers: Tessa Bonner, soprano; The Rose Consort of Viols

Taken from Naxos 8.550604


Fair Britain isle

A very sad piece that was written when Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, died in 1612. You can tell that Byrd was struck by the death of a much-admired prince: Henry would have become King had he lived. Instead, his younger brother, Charles, became King (Charles I).

Performers: Tessa Bonner, soprano; The Rose Consort of Viols

Taken from Naxos 8.550604


Triumph with pleasant melody

This piece describes a conversation between Christ and a sinner (someone who has done something wrong). So the first voice sings the part of Christ, and the second sings the person who asks for his forgiveness. Christ says it’s all okay – so the piece becomes happier, comforting, and keeps changing from the sad minor key to a major one.

Performers: Red Byrd; The Rose Consort of Viols

Taken from Naxos 8.550604

Sacred Works (sacred = religious)


Mass for Four Voices

Byrd’s setting of the Catholic Mass is controlled and compact; there is nothing loud or sudden. Instead, the voices express quiet devotion – just like you would expect in a church. To us today, the music sounds quite sad: we don’t know whether Byrd was sad, although we do know that he was unhappy about how Catholics were being treated in England.

Performers: Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553239


Liber secundus sacrarum cantionum (Cantiones sacrae): Infelix ego

Byrd wants to express how he feels at being rejected by people because he is Catholic. So he chooses to set to music a poem by a Florentine priest called Savonarola, who had been executed in Italy about a hundred years earlier. In his poem, Savonarola feels guilty as he awaits death, and Byrd captures wonderfully in music his strong feelings.

Performers: Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550574


Have Mercy Upon Me, O God

This work comes from Byrd’s 1611 publication Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets. In it, Byrd sets a sacred (religious) text with great sensitivity. He alternates a solo voice with viols and choral sections. The music has a pleading quality, which suits the words ‘Have mercy upon me’.

Performers: Red Byrd, The Rose Consort of Viols

Taken from Naxos 8.550604