William Byrd, (born 1539/40, July 4, 1623), English organist and composer of the Shakespearean age who is best known for his development of the English madrigal. He also wrote virginal and organ music that elevated the English keyboard style.

Top Works


William Byrd (/bɜrd/; birth date variously given as c.1539/40 or 1543 – 4 July 1623, by the Julian calendar, 14 July 1623, by the Gregorian calendar) was an English composer of the Renaissance. He wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard (the so-called Virginalist school), and consort music. He produced sacred music for use in Anglican services, although he himself became a Roman Catholic in later life and wrote Catholic sacred music as well.

Birth and origins

Thanks largely to the research of John Harley, knowledge of Byrd's biography has expanded in recent years. According to Harley, Thomas Byrd, the grandson of Richard Byrd of Ingatestone, Essex, probably moved to London in the 15th century. Thereafter succeeding generations of the family are described as gentlemen. William Byrd was born in London, the son of another Thomas Byrd about whom nothing further is known, and his wife, Margery. The specific year of Byrd's birth is uncertain. In his will, dated 15 November 1622, he describes himself as "in the 80th year of my age", suggesting a birthdate of 1542 or 1543. However a document dated 2 October 1598 written in his own hand states that he is "58 yeares or ther abouts", indicating an earlier birthdate of 1539 or 1540. Byrd had two brothers, Symond and John, who became London merchants, and four sisters, Alice, Barbara, Mary, and Martha.

Early years

There is no documentary evidence concerning Byrd's early musical training. His two brothers were choristers at St. Paul's Cathedral, and Byrd may have been a chorister there as well under Simon Westcote, although it is possible that he was a chorister with the Chapel Royal. A reference in the prefatory material to the Cantiones sacrae published by Byrd and Thomas Tallis in 1575 tends to confirm that Byrd was a pupil of Tallis in the Chapel Royal. According to Anthony Wood, Byrd was "bred up to musick under Tho. Tallis." Moreover, one of Byrd's earliest compositions was a collaboration with two Chapel Royal singing-men, John Sheppard and William Mundy, on a setting for four male voices of the psalm In exitu Israel for the procession to the font in Easter week. It was probably composed near the end of the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (1553–1558), who revived Sarum liturgical practices.

A few other compositions by Byrd also probably date from his teenage years. These include his setting of the Easter responsory Christus resurgens (a4) which was not published until 1605, but which as part of the Sarum liturgy could also have been composed during Mary's reign, as well as Alleluia confitemini (a3) which combines two liturgical items for Easter week. Some of the hymns and antiphons for keyboard and for consort may also date from this period, though it is also possible that the consort pieces may have been composed in Lincoln for the musical training of choirboys.


Byrd's first known professional employment was his appointment in 1563 as organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln Cathedral. Residing at what is now 6 Minster Yard Lincoln, he remained in post until 1572. His period at Lincoln was not entirely trouble-free, for on 19 November 1569 the Dean and Chapter cited him for 'certain matters alleged against him' as the result of which his salary was suspended. Since Puritanism was influential at Lincoln, it is possible that the allegations were connected with over-elaborate choral polyphony or organ playing. A second directive, dated 29 November, issued detailed instructions regarding Byrd's use of the organ in the liturgy. On 14 September 1568, Byrd married Julian Birley; it was a long-lasting and fruitful union which produced at least seven children.

The 1560s were also important formative years for Byrd the composer. His Short Service, an unpretentious setting of items for the Anglican Matins, Communion and Evensong services, which seems to have been designed to comply with the Protestant reformers’ demand for clear words and simple musical textures, may well have been composed during the Lincoln years. It is at any rate clear that Byrd was composing Anglican church music, for when he left Lincoln the Dean and Chapter continued to pay him at a reduced rate on condition that he would send the cathedral his compositions. Byrd had also taken serious strides with instrumental music. The seven In Nomine settings for consort (two a4 and five a5), at least one of the consort fantasias (Neighbour F1 a6) and a number of important keyboard works were apparently composed during the Lincoln years. The latter include the Ground in Gamut (described as "Mr Byrd's old ground") by his future pupil Thomas Tomkins, the A minor Fantasia, and probably the first of Byrd's great series of keyboard pavanes and galliards, a composition which was transcribed by Byrd from an original for five-part consort. All these show Byrd gradually emerging as a major figure on the Elizabethan musical landscape.

Some sets of keyboard variations, such as The Hunt's Up and the imperfectly preserved set on Gypsies’ Round also seem to be early works. As we have seen, Byrd had begun setting Latin liturgical texts as a teenager, and he seems to have continued to do so at Lincoln. Two exceptional large-scale psalm motets, Ad Dominum cum tribularer (a8) and Domine quis habitabit (a9), are Byrd's contribution to a paraliturgicall form cultivated by Robert White and Robert Parsons. De lamentatione, another early work, is a contribution to the Elizabethan practice of setting groups of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, following the format of the Tenebrae lessons sung in the Catholic rite during the last three days of Holy Week. Other contributors in this form include Tallis, White, Parsley and the elder Ferrabosco. It is likely that this practice was an expression of Elizabethan Catholic nostalgia, as a number of the texts suggest.

The Chapel Royal

Byrd obtained the prestigious post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 following the death of Robert Parsons, a gifted composer who drowned in the Trent near Newark on 25 January of that year. Almost from the outset Byrd is named as 'organist', which however was not a designated post but an occupation for any Chapel Royal member capable of filling it. This career move vastly increased Byrd's opportunities to widen his scope as a composer and also to make contacts at Court. Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603) was a moderate Protestant who eschewed the more extreme forms of Puritanism and retained a fondness for elaborate ritual, besides being a music lover and keyboard player herself. Byrd's output of Anglican church music (defined in the strictest sense as sacred music designed for performance in church) is surprisingly small, but it stretches the limits of elaboration then regarded as acceptable by some reforming Protestants who regarded highly wrought music as a distraction from the Word of God.

Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (1575)

Shortly afterwards Byrd and Tallis were jointly granted a patent for the printing of music and ruled music paper for 21 years, one of a number of patents issued by the Crown for the printing of books on various subjects. The two musicians used the services of the French Huguenot printer Thomas Vautrollier, who had settled in England and previously produced an edition of a collection of Lassus chansons in London (Receuil du mellange, 1570). The two monopolists took advantage of the patent to produce a grandiose joint publication under the title Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur. It was a collection of 34 Latin motets dedicated to the Queen herself, accompanied by elaborate prefatory matter including poems in Latin elegiacs by the schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster and the young courtier Ferdinand Heybourne (aka Richardson). There are 17 motets each by Tallis and Byrd, one for each year of the Queen's reign.

Byrd's contributions to the Cantiones are in various different styles, although his forceful musical personality is stamped on all of them.. The inclusion of Laudate pueri (a6) which proves to be an instrumental fantasia with words added after composition, is one sign that Byrd had some difficulty in assembling enough material for the collection. Diliges Dominum (a8), which may also originally have been untexted, is an eight-in-four retrograde canon of little musical interest. Also belonging to the more archaic stratum of motets is Libera me Domine (a5), a cantus firmus setting of the ninth responsory at Matins for the Office for the Dead, which takes its point of departure from the setting by Robert Parsons, while Miserere mihi (a6), a setting of a Compline antiphon often used by Tudor composers for didactic cantus firmus exercises, incorporates a four-in-two canon. Tribue Domine (a6) is a large-scale sectional composition setting from a medieval collection of Meditationes which was commonly attributed to St Augustine, composed in a style which owes much to earlier Tudor settings of votive antiphons as a mosaic of full and semichoir passages. Byrd sets it in three sections, each beginning with a semichoir passage in archaic style.

Byrd's contribution to the Cantiones also includes compositions in a more forward-looking manner which point the way to his motets of the 1580s. Some of them show the influence of the motets of Alfonso Ferrabosco I (1543–1588), a Bolognese musician who worked in the Tudor court at intervals between 1562 and 1578. Ferrabosco's motets provided direct models for Byrd's Emendemus in melius (a5), O lux beata Trinitas (a6), Domine secundum actum meum (a6) and Siderum rector (a5) as well as a more generalised paradigm for what Joseph Kerman has called Byrd's 'affective-imitative' style, a method of setting pathetic texts in extended paragraphs based on subjects employing curving lines in fluid rhythm and contrapuntal techniques which Byrd learnt from his study of Ferrabosco.

The Cantiones were a financial failure. In 1577 Byrd and Tallis were forced to petition Queen Elizabeth for financial help, pleading that the publication had "fallen oute to oure greate losse" and that Tallis was now "verie aged". They were subsequently granted the leasehold on various lands in East Anglia and the West Country for a period of 21 years.

From the early 1570s onwards Byrd became increasingly involved with Catholicism, which, as the scholarship of the last half-century has demonstrated, became a major factor in his personal and creative life. As John Harley has shown, it is probable that Byrd's parental family were Protestants, though whether by deeply felt conviction or nominal conformism is not clear. Byrd himself may have held Protestant beliefs in his youth, for a recently discovered fragment of a setting of an English translation of Martin Luther's hymn "Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort", which bears an attribution to "Birde" includes the line "From Turk and Pope defend us Lord". However, from the 1570s onwards he is found associating with known Catholics, including Lord Thomas Paget, to whom he wrote a petitionary letter on behalf of an unnamed friend in about 1573. Byrd's wife Julian was first cited for recusancy (refusing to attend Anglican services) at Harlington in Middlesex, where the family now lived, in 1577. Byrd himself appears in the recusancy lists from 1584.

His involvement with Catholicism took on a new dimension in the 1580s. Following Pope Pius V's papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, in 1570, which absolved Elizabeth's subjects from allegiance to her and effectively made her an outlaw in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Catholicism became increasingly identified with sedition in the eyes of the Tudor authorities. With the influx of missionary priests trained at the English College, Douai, (now in France but then part of the Spanish Netherlands) and in Rome from the 1570s onwards, relations between the authorities and the Catholic community took a further turn for the worse. Byrd himself is found in the company of prominent Catholics. In 1583 he got into serious trouble because of his association with Paget, who was suspected of involvement in the Throckmorton Plot, and for sending money to Catholics abroad. As a result of this, Byrd's membership of the Chapel Royal was apparently suspended for a time, restrictions were placed on his movements, and his house was placed on the search list. In 1586 he attended a gathering at a country house in the company of Father Henry Garnett (later executed for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot) and the Catholic poet Robert Southwell.

Cantiones sacrae (1589 and 1591)

Byrd's commitment to the Catholic cause found expression in his motets, of which he composed about 50 between 1575 and 1591. While the texts of the motets included by Byrd and Tallis in the 1575 Cantiones have a High Anglican doctrinal tone, scholars such as Joseph Kerman have detected a profound change of direction in the texts which Byrd set in the motets of the 1580s. In particular there is a persistent emphasis on themes such as the persecution of the chosen people (Domine praestolamur a5) the Babylonian or Egyptian captivity (Domine tu iurasti) and the long-awaited coming of deliverance (Laetentur caeli, Circumspice Jerusalem). This has led scholars from Kerman onwards to believe that Byrd was reinterpreting biblical and liturgical texts in a contemporary context and writing laments and petitions on behalf of the persecuted Catholic community, which seems to have adopted Byrd as a kind of 'house' composer. Some texts should probably be interpreted as warnings against spies (Vigilate, nescitis enim) or lying tongues (Quis est homo) or celebration of the memory of martyred priests (O quam gloriosum). Byrd's setting of the first four verses of Psalm 78 (Deus venerunt gentes) is widely believed to refer to the brutal execution of Fr Edmund Campion in 1581 an event that caused widespread revulsion on the Continent as well as in England. Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, Byrd's Quomodo cantabimus is the result of a motet exchange between Byrd and Philippe de Monte, who was director of music to Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, in Prague. In 1583 De Monte sent Byrd his setting of verses 1–4 of Vulgate Psalm 136 (Super flumina Babylonis), including the pointed question "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" Byrd replied the following year with a setting of the defiant continuation, set, like de Monte's piece, in eight parts and incorporating a three-part canon by inversion.

Thirty-seven of Byrd's motets were published in two sets of Cantiones sacrae, which appeared in 1589 and 1591. Together with two sets of English songs, discussed below, these collections, dedicated to powerful Elizabethan lords (Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester and John Lumley, 1st Baron Lumley), probably formed part of Byrd's campaign to re-establish himself in Court circles after the reverses of the 1580s. They may also reflect the fact that Byrd's fellow monopolist Tallis and his printer Thomas Vautrollier had died, thus creating a more propitious climate for publishing ventures. Since many of the motet texts of the 1589 and 1591 sets are pathetic in tone, it is not surprising that many of them continue and develop the 'affective-imitative' vein found in some motets from the 1570s, though in a more concise and concentrated form. Domine praestolamur (1589) is a good example of this style, laid out in imitative paragraphs based on subjects which characteristically emphasise the expressive minor second and minor sixth, with continuations which subsequently break off and are heard separately (another technique which Byrd had learnt from his study of Ferrabosco). Byrd evolved a special "cell" technique for setting the petitionary clauses such as miserere mei or libera nos Domine which form the focal point for a number of the texts. Particularly striking examples of these are the final section of Tribulatio proxima est (1589) and the multi-sectional Infelix ego (1591), a large-scale motet which takes its point of departure from Tribue Domine of 1575.

There are also a number of compositions which do not conform to this stylistic pattern. They include three motets which employ the old-fashioned cantus firmus technique as well as the most famous item in the 1589 collection, Ne irascaris Domine. the second part of which is closely modelled on Philip van Wilder's popular Aspice Domine. A few motets, especially in the 1591 set, abandon traditional motet style and resort to vivid word painting which reflects the growing popularity of the madrigal (Haec dies, 1591). A famous passage from Thomas Morley's A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597) supports the view that the madrigal had superseded the motet in the favour of Catholic patrons, a fact which may explain why Byrd composed few non-liturgical motets after 1591.

The English song-books of 1588 and 1589

In 1588 and 1589 Byrd also published two collections of English songs. The first, Psalms, Sonnets and Songs of Sadness and Pietie (1588) consists mainly of adapted consort songs, which Byrd, probably guided by commercial instincts, had turned into vocal part-songs by adding words to the accompanying instrumental parts and labelling the original solo voice as "the first singing part". The consort song, which was the most popular form of vernacular polyphony in England in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, was a solo song for a high voice (often sung by a boy) accompanied by a consort of four consort instruments (normally viols). As the title of Byrd's collection implies, consort songs varied widely in character. Many were settings of metrical psalms, in which the solo voice sings a melody in the manner of the numerous metrical psalm collections of the day (e.g. Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, 1562) with each line prefigured by imitation in the accompanying instruments. Others are dramatic elegies, intended to be performed in the boy-plays which were popular in Tudor London. A popular source for song settings was Richard Edwards' The paradyse of dainty devices(1576) of which seven settings in consort song form survive.

Byrd's 1588 collection, which complicates the form as he inherited it from Robert Parsons, Richard Farrant and others, reflects this tradition. The "psalms" section sets texts drawn from Sternhold's psalter of 1549 in the traditional manner, while the 'sonnets and pastorals' section employs lighter, more rapid motion with crotchet (quarter-note) pulse, and sometimes triple metre (Though Amaryllis dance in green, If women could be fair). Poetically, the set (together with other evidence) reflects Byrd's involvement with the literary circle surrounding Sir Philip Sidney, whose influence at Court was at its height in the early 1580s. Byrd set three of the songs from Sidney's sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, as well as poems by other members of the Sidney circle, and also included two elegies on Sidney's death in the Battle of Zutphen in 1586. But the most popular item in the set was the Lullaby (Lullay lullaby) which blends the tradition of the dramatic lament with the cradle-songs found in some early boy-plays and medieval mystery plays. It long retained its popularity. In 1602, Byrd's patron Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester, discussing Court fashions in music, predicted that "in winter lullaby, an owld song of Mr Birde, wylbee more in request as I thinke."

The Songs of Sundrie Natures (1589) contain sections in three, four, five and six parts, a format which follows the plan of many Tudor manuscript collections of household music and was probably intended to emulate the madrigal collection Musica transalpina, which had appeared in print the previous year. Byrd's set contains compositions in a wide variety of musical styles, reflecting the variegated character of the texts which he was setting. The three-part section includes settings of metrical versions of the seven penitential psalms, in an archaic style which reflects the influence of the psalm collections. Other items from the three-part and four-part section are in a lighter vein, employing a line-by-line imitative technique and a predominant crotchet pulse (The nightingale so pleasant (a3), Is love a boy? (a4) ). The five-part section includes vocal part-songs which show the influence of the "adapted consort song" style of the 1588 set but which seem to have been conceived as all-vocal part-songs. Byrd also bowed to tradition by setting two carols in the traditional form with alternating verses and burdens, (From Virgin's womb this day did spring, An early tree, a heavenly fruit, both a6) and even included an anthem, a setting of the Easter prose Christ rising again which also circulated in church choir manuscripts with organ accompaniment.

My Ladye Nevells Booke

The 1580s were also a productive decade for Byrd as a composer of instrumental music. On 11 September 1591 John Baldwin, a tenor lay-clerk at St George's Chapel, Windsor and later a colleague of Byrd in the Chapel Royal, completed the copying of My Ladye Nevells Booke, a collection of 42 of Byrd's keyboard pieces, which was probably produced under Byrd's supervision and includes corrections which are thought to be in the composer's hand. Byrd would almost certainly have published it if the technical means had been available to do so. The dedicatee long remained unidentified, but John Harley's researches into the heraldic design on the fly-leaf have shown that she was Lady Elizabeth Neville, the third wife of Sir Henry Neville of Billingbear House, Berkshire, who was a Justice of the Peace and a warden of Windsor Great Park. Under her third married name, Lady Periam, she also received the dedication of Thomas Morley's two-part canzonets of 1595. The contents show Byrd's mastery of a wide variety of keyboard forms, though liturgical compositions based on plainsong are not represented. The collection includes a series of ten pavans and galliards in the usual three-strain form with embellished repeats of each strain. (The only exception is the Ninth Pavan, which is a set of variations on the passamezzo antico bass.)

There are indications that the sequence may be a chronological one, for the First Pavan is labelled "the first that ever hee made" in the 'Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and the Tenth Pavan, which is separated from the others, evidently became available at a late stage before the completion date. It is dedicated to William Petre (the son of Byrd's patron Sir John Petre, 1st Baron Petre) who was only 15 years old in 1591 and could hardly have played it if it had been composed much earlier. The collection also includes two famous pieces of programme music. The Battle, which was apparently inspired by an unidentified skirmish in Elizabeth's Irish wars, is a sequence of movements bearing titles such as "The marche to fight", "The battells be joyned" and "The Galliarde for the victorie". Although not representing Byrd at his most profound, it achieved great popularity and is of incidental interest for the information which it gives on sixteenth-century English military calls. It is followed by The Barley Break (a mock-battle follows a real one), a light-hearted piece which follows the progress of a game of "barley-break", a version of the game now known as "piggy in the middle", played by three couples with a ball. My Ladye Nevells Booke also contains two monumental Grounds, and sets of keyboard variations of variegated character, notably the huge set on Walsingham and the popular variations on Sellinger's Round, Carman's Whistle and My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home. The fantasias and voluntaries in Nevell also cover a wide stylistic range, some being austerely contrapuntal (A voluntarie, no. 42) and others lighter and more Italianate in tone. (A Fancie no 36). Like the five-and six-part consort fantasias, they sometimes feature a gradual increase in momentum after an imitative opening paragraph.

Consort music

The period up to 1591 also saw important additions to Byrd's output of consort music, some of which have probably been lost. Two magnificent large-scale compositions are the Browning, a set of 20 variations on a popular melody (also known as "The leaves be green") which evidently originated as a celebration of the ripening of nuts in autumn, and an elaborate ground on the formula known as the Goodnight Ground. The smaller-scale fantasias (those a3 and a4) use a light-textured imitative style which owes something to Continental models, while the five and six-part fantasias employ large-scale cumulative construction and allusions to snatches of popular songs. A good example of the last type is the Fantasia a6 (No 2) which begins with a sober imitative paragraph before progressively more fragmented textures (working in a quotation from Greensleeves at one point). It even includes a complete three-strain galliard, followed by an expansive coda (for a performance on YouTube, see under 'External links' below). The single five-part fantasia, which is apparently an early work, includes a canon at the upper fourth.

Stondon Massey

In about 1594 Byrd's career entered a new phase. He was now in his early fifties, and seems to have gone into semi-retireme