William Byrd

Considered by many to be the greatest composer of the English Renaissance, with an intensely personal and recognizable style.

Vital Statistics
Circa 1540 in London, into a Protestant family
July 4, 1623, at Stondon Massey in Essex
Performed As:
Singer, organist, and choirmaster
During Lifetime:
Queen Elizabeth I ascends the throne, and Catholicism is officially outlawed in England. The suspicion of Catholics only grows after the foiling of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth in 1583, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Biographical Outline
  • Choirboy?: Byrd is probably a choirboy of the Chapel Royal under the great composer/organist Thomas Tallis in the 1550s. He is reported to have taken composition lessons with Tallis.
  • First gig: Serves as organist and choirmaster at Lincoln Cathedral (1563-70), where he composes in many styles and genres.
  • Rubbing elbows: In 1572 Byrd becomes a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. There he serves as joint organist with Tallis, a private Catholic, like Byrd. He cultivates connections to gentry and powerful lords (all of them Catholic).
  • Royal treatment, 1575: Queen Elizabeth grants Byrd and Tallis a patent (monopoly) on printing and marketing part-music and lined music paper. Queen Elizabeth accepts the dedication of their first volume, a set of Latin motets.
  • Making a statement, 1580s: Despite official censorship and increasing repression of the Catholic community, Byrd continues writing Latin motets, a genre closely associated with the Catholic church, and sets scriptural texts with clear political implications, such as psalms about the Jewish captivity in Babylon.
  • Publications 1588-91: Byrd begins systematically publishing his works, presumably in an attempt to organize and preserve them. Publications include two collections of English songs, two sets of motets, and a manuscript of keyboard music and dances. The songbooks sell out through two reprintings.
  • Critical mass: Moves to Essex in 1593 to avoid the increasing enforcement of laws requiring Anglican church attendance. Here he joins a Catholic community and embarks on an enormous project to provide music for Catholic worship services. Byrd writes three settings of the ordinary mass (among his most famous works), and two books of motets for all the principal feast days (Gradualia).
Fun Facts
  • Pushing boundaries: In 1569 Byrd’s salary was suspended because people found his organ playing too “popish” (that is, elaborate).
  • Religious rebel: Byrd and his wife were fined almost yearly for “recusancy” (refusal to attend Church of England services), worshipped in clandestine services, and may have provided financial support or asylum to Jesuits and other religious fugitives. His connections to powerful lords kept him safe. In return, Byrd set English anthems, including one with words by Elizabeth I herself, thanking God for deliverance from the Spanish Armada.
  • Legal wrangler: Byrd was a tough customer, and much of his life was occupied with lawsuits. One of them, over his property at Stondon Massey, lasted 17 years.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Byrd was the leading composer of his generation. One contemporary referred to him as “the father of British music.” Most of his English liturgical works were composed during the Lincoln years, but the Great Service, an enormous summation work for 10 voice parts, was begun in the late 1580s. He is the first great composer of English keyboard music, establishing the main genres that 17th-century composers followed. His three masses are highly prized staples of the choral repertory.
Recommended Websites
  • William Byrd: The Three Masses. The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips (Gimell, 2001) OR
  • The Tallis Scholars Sing Byrd. (Gimell, 2007, 2 discs). Includes the Great Service and several English anthems, as well as the masses and the beautiful setting of Ave verum corpus.
  • Ave verum corpus: Motets and Anthems of William Byrd. (Collegium Records, 2003).
  • Byrd: Keyboard Music. Davitt Moroney (Hyperion, 2001). Highlights from Moroney’s seven-CD set of the complete music for keyboard.
  • Byrd: Consort and Keyboard Music: Songs and Anthems. Rose Consort of Viols/Red Byrd (Naxos, 1994).
  • Byrd: Consort Songs. Emma Kirkby/ Fretwork (Harmonia Mundi, 2005).