BYRD, William

BYRD, William
(c. 1543-1623)
William Byrd was one of the most prominent composers of sixteenth-century England; in addition, he was known as a versatile musician, able to perform on many instruments. He probably began his musical career as a choirboy, either in Queen Mary's* Chapel Royal or at St. Paul's Cathedral with his two older brothers. Byrd served as organist of Lincoln Cathedral from 1563 until he joined Elizabeth I's* Chapel Royal in 1572. His compositions bear some resemblance to those of his teacher, Thomas Tallis.* With Tallis he was so favored by Eliz­abeth that in 1575 the monarch granted the two composers a monopoly on printed music and music paper; the venture was a business failure, producing only one publication, their joint Cantiones sacrae (Sacred songs, 1575), which did not sell. When Tallis died ten years later, he left his share to Byrd's youngest son, Thomas, Tallis's godson. William Byrd later sold his share to his own pupil, Thomas Morley.* Both Byrd and Morley were famous for writing mad­rigals and secular dance music. Byrd also collaborated with John Bull,* pub­lishing a collection entitled Parthenia (c. 1612).
Byrd adhered to the Roman Catholic faith despite its unpopularity in the England of his time. He was apparently forced to withdraw from publication his Gradualia (1605), a collection of motets based on the Roman Catholic lit­urgy. With his wife Juliana, their children Rachael, Elizabeth, and Christopher, and at least one of their servants, Byrd was prosecuted on several occasions for absenting himself from Anglican services. However, none of the cases reached trial, since Byrd was protected by the queen. Nor did Byrd's Catholic ties pre­vent him from setting to music many poems of Sir Philip Sidney,* a strong Protestant. Christopher Byrd later married the sister of a Catholic chaplain.
Byrd's instrumental music, of which he published little, was virtually un­known until the twentieth century. However, both vocal and instrumental com­positions are creative and imaginative while drawing on English musical tradition. Equally at ease composing in Latin and English, Byrd claimed in his Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets (1611) that his goal was one of matching his music "to the life of the words."
J. Harley, William Byrd: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, 1997.
Jean Graham

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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