There are music scholars whose names are synonymous with certain composers. One could think of Hermann Abert’s book W. A. Mozart, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, and the work of H. C. Robbins Landon and his research on Haydn. For 19th century composers, there is the four-volume classic, The Life of Richard Wagner by Ernest Newman, the magnificent four-volume study of the life of Gustav Mahler by Henry Louis de la Grange, and the three-volume study of the life and music of Richard Strauss by Norman del Mar.
The one name most often associated with composer William Byrd has to be Joseph Kerman. Recently, music historian Kerry McCarthy of Duke University has offered us an insightful, insight-filled, and highly readable book, entitled simply Byrd, on the life and the music of this foremost composer under the reign of Elizabeth I and James I.
William Byrd lived from c1540 to 1623 and produced some of the most original and moving music of the late Renaissance. Like Norman del Mar’s books on Richard Strauss, Byrd is written such that the life of the composer is framed by the works from different periods of his life.
McCarthy begins her book by laying down the historical events surrounding the birth year of William Byrd. The year 1540 was the year “King Henry (VIII) met, married, and divorced his fourth wife, executed the man who had arranged the marriage, and, on the day of the execution, married for the fifth time.” More relevant, but related nevertheless, to Byrd’s life and music, 1540 was also the year King Henry “finished dismantling the monasteries and convents – an act, that, more than any other, marked the real end of medieval England.” The significance here is, of course, that Byrd was Roman Catholic, and remained so throughout his life, in spite of the political climate of the time. By the time Byrd began his musical education under Thomas Tallis, the musical world of Gregorian chants had disappeared forever. Reformers began introducing vernacular services in the 1540’s, and the new ideal for English services was simple syllabic chanting, far from the florid melisma of pre-Reformation church music. “For every syllable a note” was Thomas Cranmar’s famous injunction to church musicians.
From his earliest days, Byrd had business acumen and a “rather hard-headed attitude toward the realities of life.” Perhaps this ability allowed him to survive, indeed flourish, as a Catholic in Protestant England. The young composer knew how to cultivate the interest of the powerful, and knew how to dedicate works of his to “the right people”, Catholic or Protestant. During his first professional position, as organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, Byrd met and married a local woman named Julian Burley, who was, from all reports, “an unusually stubborn Catholic”, being the first member of Byrd’s family to be prosecuted for recusancy. Byrd’s marriage to Burley may have contributed to his increasingly Catholic convictions that remained with him for the rest of his life.
William Byrd was, of course, best known for his Latin Motets, a musical form that had, by his time, been banished from church service. Byrd’s motets thus became a form of chamber music, “private music to be enjoyed among small groups of connoisseurs.” That said, the composer, ever the pragmatist, also created the Short Service, music written for Protestant worship, and was popular during his lifetime.
McCarthy’s narrative of Byrd’s life is also peppered with quite detailed analysis of representative works of various genres – vocal and instrumental, sacred as well as secular. Rather than disrupting the narrative, such detailed discussion and analysis, I feel, enhance one’s understanding the composer’s life. In fact, the many analyses of Byrd’s works help give readers a fuller picture of both Byrd as a man and as a composer.
On February 22, 1572, Byrd achieved, at a relatively early age, the summit of his professional career, by his appointment as one of thirty-two Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal. When Henry VIII dissolved the various Catholic institutions, the Chapel Royal became the place where the best church musicians in England converged. The Elizabethan Chapel Royal boasted the largest choir in England, with up to forty singers for major feast days. A Gentleman of the Chapel received a generous salary, and their appointments were for life – incredibly favourable terms for a musician even by today’s standards.
However, becoming a Gentleman of the Chapel also involved a swearing a solemn declaration that the Queen “is and ought to be, by the word of God, the only supreme governor of this realm…as well as in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things or causes, as temporal.” The same oath also called for renunciation of “all foreign jurisdictions, powers, superiorities and authorities.” Whatever his mindset was at the time, he was obviously willing to make this very significant compromise, for a Catholic. Being the ambitious young composer that he was, Byrd obviously felt that he had to do what was necessary to advance his musical career.
Not only did this new position brought Byrd to the center of English musical life, he, along with Thomas Tallis also managed to negotiate a royal patent for the printing and distribution of music in England, allowing them “to edit and publish music in England for the next twenty-one years.” This monopoly even extended to the printed staff paper on which musicians made their manuscripts. Byrd never made secret of the fact that he was a Catholic, although he “was never publicly active as a Catholic composer in the way Tallis had been.” Obviously those in power valued his genius as a composer enough to overlook this one little “flaw” in the man.
There is an intriguing chapter in the book entitled Byrd the Reader, outlining the books found in the composer’s quite eclectic collection. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Byrd’s collection of books included some extremely anti-Catholic publications. Included in this collection (his name was inscribed in it) was The New Arrival of the Three Graces, which contained a tirade against “the wicked government of papal dignity.” The author wondered aloud why Byrd, as a “convinced Catholic”, would fill his library with anti-Catholic and Protestant books. Perhaps, McCarthy said, they were there as a “decoy to mislead anti-Catholic spies and government officials.” Or was the composer just interested in current political issues in England and abroad, so as to know what he would be up against? There are no satisfactory answer to these questions, nor would there ever be, but the speculation makes for fascinating reading.
The years around 1580 were difficult ones for Byrd. He was under constant suspicion of illegal Catholic activities. His “(l)etters were intercepted, his property was searched, fines were exacted, and he might even have been kept for a short time under a relatively mild form of house arrest.” Byrd automatically became of “the usual suspects” whenever a Catholic plot was uncovered. The author speculated that his position at court might even have been suspended for a time. In the late 1580’s, he published Psalms, Sonnets and Songs, as an effort to redeem himself. Dedicated to Sir Christopher Hatton, a royal favourite and Lord Chancellor of England, and contained music set to a “star-studded roster of poets” like Raleigh, Sidney, Oxford, Ariosto, and Ovid. There was much detailed discussion about the significance of various texts, as well as analysis of some of the songs. For instance, Byrd’s elegy on the death of Thomas Tallis, Ye sacred Muses, is actually a translation of a lament on the death of Josquin des Prez by his student Nicolas Gombert. The final line of Byrd’s elegy, “Tallis is dead,” was “borrowed” directly from Gombert’s elegy, “Josquin is dead.”
Byrd’s most overtly Catholic musical protest has to be his “grave and elaborate” song, Why do I use my paper, ink, and pen? The song appears superficially to be a tribute to Christian martyrs of the past, but is in fact a “notorious twenty-stanza lament on the execution of the Jesuit missionary Edmund Campion in 1581.” The poem had always been controversial, the printer of the original poem was arrested and had his ears cut off, and John Bolt, one of Byrd’s associates, was interrogated about the piece as late as 1594. A song such as this one, as well as the motets he published under his two books of Cantiones, were bold and risky gestures, “that prefigured his even greater boldness in published three Latin masses a few years later.” Many of the Cantiones “are anguished confessions of sin, pleas for rescue from tribulation, or laments over the fall of an allegorical ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘holy city.’ It is hard to avoid the conclusions that many of them were inspired by Byrd’s distress at the increasingly dire predicaments of the English Catholic community.” Whether the gloomy mood of many of these motets were Byrd’s songs of lamentations for his fellow English Catholics, or whether he was just sharing in the English Renaissance taste for melancholy and introspection is difficult to determine. The author warned us against deducing too much about Byrd’s mindset from the dark colours of many of the motets. Although it is difficult for the composer not to have been affected by the affairs of the world around him.
Indeed, Byrd’s Three Latin Masses published, “discreetly as small pamphlets, with none of the elaborate prefatory materials found in his other books.” In setting the Mass to music, Byrd was “doing something no English composer had done for thirty years.” It appears amazing the risk he was taking, given the political and cultural risks involved, not to mention possible damage to his career. When the last of the three Masses had been published, Byrd “made the definitive turn away from court and city,” and moved his family to the rural Essex community of Stondon Massey. The attractive there was primarily the family of Byrd’s wealthy Catholic patron, Sir John Petre. Almost immediately, Byrd and his family had been noticed as “Catholic dissidents who refused to attend services at the local parish church.” Like the motets, it is tempting to speculate if their writing was influenced by Byrd’s subsequent decision to have closer relation to the underground Catholic “diaspora”. What we can say with some certainty is that these Masses mark this watershed moment in the composer’s life, after which he devoted even more of his efforts in service of his faith.
It was during his stay at Stondon Massey that Byrd entered his final phase as a composer, composing some of his later instrumental works, as well as his magnum opus - Gradualia. Gradualia was absolutely unique in that music was set to a series of special Latin texts, making up the Proper of the Mass, texts that change from day to day, a real luxury since the music would be sung just once a year on the appropriate feast day. The first volume of Gradualia was published in 1605, but publication of the second volume had to wait until 1607, the reason being the discovery in November 1605 of the Gunpowder Plot – a “narrowly foiled attempt by a group of Catholic extremists to assassinate King James and most of his government by detonating kegs of gunpowder during the ceremonial opening of Parliament.” Such was the climate against which the music was written.
The author pointed out that composing Gradualia was a labour of love for Byrd, who seemed “to have enjoyed writing almost every note.” She added that a “constant danger of discovery and persecution” kept the English recusant world from producing artistic works of lasting value, and that Byrd’s Gradualia “may well be the greatest exception to this rule.”
The death of William Byrd in 1623 marks the end of an entire generation of composers. Naturally, composers following Byrd “had no living memory of pre-Reformation sacred music and barely knew the older traditions of English secular song.” By the end of Byrd’s life, many of his Catholic contemporaries had already left England because they found the situation at home intolerable. Although popular in his lifetime, Byrd’s music lost its popularity after his death, and it really wasn’t until the Tudor music revival of the early 20th century, and perhaps the advent of recordings, that people began to appreciate his music once again.
Did Byrd sacrifice everything for his Catholic faith? It does not seem so. Not everything. The Jesuit William Weston claimed that Byrd “sacrificed everything for the faith – his position, the court, and all those aspirations common to men who seek preferment in royal circles as means of improving their fortune.” The evidence does not support those assertions. Byrd retained his court position until the end of his life, and he remained a member of the royal household, “with all the benefits that entailed.”
Nevertheless, it must be said that Byrd’s life would have been far easier had he abandoned his Catholic faith and made himself a loyal member of the Church of England. And it is evident that some of Byrd’s most sublime and original music are music written for the “house chapels and secret meeting places of his fellow Catholics.”
William Byrd was also “not the mild-mannered ecumenical figure imagined by a biographer such as Edmund Fellowes”. According to McCarthy, “By his forties Byrd was effectively flaunting his recusancy in public, which could not have been a comfortable position for a professional courtier. It is also worth recalling that his family background was (and, beyond his own household, remained) thoroughly Protestant. He was as much an outsider among his relatives as he was at court.”
In her conclusions, McCarthy seems to express some surprise that as a Catholic, Byrd was a man “hungry for scandalous news, intrigued by political and religious polemic, preoccupied with legal minutiae”, as well as a man of “vile and bitter words.” I do not pretend to know enough about the composer to defend him against these charges. Perhaps he really was such a man. I can only relate a story about Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh, who was rebuked by a friend for behaving badly when he was supposed to be Catholic, whereupon Waugh responded, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic.”
With hindsight, it is often all too tempting to judge a man by his actions. Many musicians have had to use their art to serve government and regimes they have no sympathy for. As a devout Catholic, Byrd devoted his talent and energies in service of the English Protestant establishment, and prospered from it. Some may call him an opportunist, but Byrd’s success in the English musical establishment gave him some degree of freedom to dedicate his talent towards his own Catholic community. In the mean time, he gave to the world some of the most original and beautiful music of his time. If history cannot judge him kindly, we should at least give him credit for doing his best under impossible circumstances.
Although part of Oxford University Press’ friendly-sounding Master Musicians series of books, I do not believe this current volume is for the casual reader. However, for those with an interest in this great English composer, as well as the political climate against which he was working, the reader will be richly rewarded.