Not a tame Byrd: Remembering a great recusant composer

The great English Renaissance composer, who died 400 years ago and left behind more than 400 pieces of music, reminds us that the creation of great art is possible even in times of adversity.

An undated etching of William Byrd (c. 1540-4 July 1623) by Gerard Vandergucht. (Image: Wikipedia)

This July 4th marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the great recusant composer William Byrd. Byrd’s legacy includes more than over 400 pieces of music, and his life reminds us that even in times of persecution, great Catholic art is still possible and worthwhile.

Byrd’s Catholic music deserves to be given a few minutes of our time, however busy we may be, for it is one of the many treasures in the Church’s culture, both natural and supernatural, with which our lives need to be enriched. Consequently, this whole anniversary year is an opportunity to discover his music and its meaning.

William Byrd was born around 1540, to Thomas and Margery Byrd, probably in London. His family was well off and musical. His brothers were merchants in the livery trade, and his sisters likely married into the mercantile class as well; one of his brothers in law was an instrument maker. Byrd’s childhood religion is uncertain; his family was likely Protestant. Byrd was probably a chorister in the Chapel Royal, under Thomas Tallis, another brilliant composer of the time who remained Catholic while working in reformation England.

Byrd’s first major post was that of organist and music director at the Lincoln Cathedral—one of the largest and most magnificent cathedrals in England. Here he had to provide music for Anglican services, navigating between those who enjoyed rich church music and puritans like the archdeacon John Aylmer. In the BBC documentary on Byrd, Playing Elizabeth’s Tune, Charles Hazlewood compares the florid signature of Byrd with the simple and angular one of Aylmer—a quaint manifestation of differences which would eventually lead to Byrd’s suspension as choirmaster, probably due to his elaborate organ playing and polyphony.

In 1568, when he must have been in his late twenties, Byrd married Juliana Birley. Their union produced at least seven children. Perhaps it was Juliana who inclined Byrd to Catholicism; within a few years he was associating with known Catholics. In England at this time, all were required to attend Anglican church services. Records were kept of attendance, and those absent were reported and called to account as “recusants,” that is, scorners of the legal requirement. This often resulted in penalties like fines, loyalty to the secular government being intertwined with religion since Henry VIII had declared himself head of England in both spiritual and temporal affairs. Byrd’s wife Juliana herself was cited for recusancy starting in 1577, while he began to appear on the recusancy lists starting in 1584.

Having obtained in 1572 a post at the prestigious musical ensemble of the court, the Chapel Royal, Byrd’s Catholicism was tolerated. In Playing Elizabeth’s Tune, Christopher Haigh, of Christ Church, Oxford, suggests that the presence of “tame Catholics” like Byrd at court was useful for Queen Elizabeth’s publicity. “How tolerant and generous of her to allow some freedom of conscience—she’s not an uncouth puritan with no taste for the arts,” some might say. On the one hand, Byrd did sign an oath acknowledging Elizabeth supreme head of England in matters spiritual and temporal—but at the same time, he seems to have received some sort of license to practice Catholicism, often (at least during this period) evading the fines associated with recusancy. He managed to retain the queen’s favor and trust while continuing to fraternize with prominent Catholics, including priests.

Many scholars see Byrd’s textual choices in his motets as reflecting the climate in which he practiced his Catholicism: motets such as his Vigilate for five voices take up themes of persecution, sorrow, and watchfulness.

Watch ye therefore, for you know not when the lord of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cock crowing, or in the morning: Watch therefore, lest coming on a sudden, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch.

This is a piece full of tension—not only admonishing but requiring vigilance to sing! Byrd’s use of fast note values and syncopation creates an atmosphere of energy. His word painting is dramatic: on the word “gallicantu” (cockcrow), the parts climb in quick cascades of notes, a stylized crowing. A cluster of passing eight notes in all the parts are as sudden as the word they set: “repente” (sudden), while immediately following the time-values lengthen on “dormientes” (sleeping) into a dreamlike passage full of chromaticism and suspensions. Two excellent recordings of this piece are by the Voices8 scholars and Apollo5 (this last video includes the score).

Around 1594, Byrd’s involvement with the Chapel Royal decreased, and he moved to the village of Stondon Massey in Essex where he lived for the rest of his life. Proximity to his patron Baron John Petre was probably the main reason for the move. A quiet recusant, John Petre was a talented musician in his own right who was well equipped with instruments: lute, five viols, virginals and organ. Byrd is known to have brought musicians to the Baron’s residence to entertain on several occasions and to have provided music for secret Masses. An eyewitness account recalls finding the Jesuit martyr Henry Garnet “in company with several Jesuits and gentlemen, who were playing music: among them Mr William Byrd, who played the organ and many other instruments. To that house came, chiefly on the solemn days observed by the Papists, many of the nobility and many ladies by coach or otherwise”1

Despite the adverse conditions under which he had to live and work, Byrd’s ambitious sacred music remains among the most beautiful of the high renaissance. Although such compositions as his “Mass for Three Voices” could have been sung by unskilled musicians, some of his others are quite difficult. Unlike his contemporaries on the continent Andea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Byrd did not have dozens of musicians for whom to compose polychoral works. Much of Byrd’s vocal music, while difficult, is composed for half a dozen singers or fewer. Byrd’s Miserere a5 sung by the Gesualdo Six is an excellent example of how rich a musical texture can be created with five lines of music. Excellent musicianship is required to make such music; but only five musicians, not the dozen or more Gabrieli’s works would require. This performance of Giovanni Gabrieli’s Suscipe clementissime Deus is a fine example of a continental composition which would require at least 14 performers. One of Byrd’s most famous and beloved motets, the Ave Verum for four voices, is another exquisite example of how few voices are needed to create a truly timeless piece of polyphony. The Gesualdo Six’s rendition allows us to hear how it might have sounded historically when sung by all male voices.

As noted before, Byrd also provided music for Anglican services, composing in English as well as in Latin. While his corpus of sacred music is dominated by Latin texts, his English music is no less masterful. Voices8’s virtuosic rendition of Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles showcases a musical style comparable to his Latin polyphony, while revealing sensitivity to the different accentuation of English. Complex counterrhythms in the different voices as well as melodic imitation create an extraordinary rich texture.

An intimate piece which initially sounds like it might be secular is his “Lulla, lullaby”, a poem in which the Virgin Mary sings to the Christ child a lullaby deploring the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by Herod (the full text can be found here). The time signature change in the second part creates a sense of agitation, ironically beginning on the words “Be still my blessed babe”. This segues into the refrain: “O woe and woeful heavy day when wretches have their will!” A favorite performance of mine is by Sarah Richards and Les Luths Consort; Richards’ delicate and lilting voice compliments the lutes perfectly to create an intensely domestic sound. A different effect is produced by The Sixteen, performing it as a fully choral piece—an example of the variety of instrumentation that renaissance music allows.

Not all of Byrd’s English music was a concession to Anglicanism, however. His Why do I use my paper, ink and pen? is a setting of a poem by St. Henry Walpole composed to commemorate the death of St. Edmund Campion—who, incidentally, was an exact contemporary of Byrd’s, having been born in 1540, the conjectural date of Byrd’s own birth.

However, Byrd was not just a composer of sacred music. His music for ensembles and keyboard was both virtuosic and pioneering. He wrote for nearly every musical medium then available, except perhaps for lute. As a lute player myself, I can only speculate that this was because he did not feel comfortable composing for an instrument he did not play himself—especially since there were so many contemporaneous lutenists who could and did arrange his music for their instrument. An interesting example is one of his fantasias—presumably intended for viola de gambas—played by Les Luths Consort on four lutes.

The viol consort—usually made up of four to seven viols—was a special product of the English renaissance. A viola da gamba is most similar to the modern cello, but there are important differences. Its five to seven strings are tuned differently and the instrument is held between the legs (“viola da gamba” is Italian for “viol of the legs”). Viols come in a number of sizes, from soprano to bass. Their sound is noticeably more delicate and mellow than that of the violin family, although the concept of a string quartet is very similar to that of a viol consort. The music composed for viol consorts in Elizabethan England used essentially the same musical vocabulary of polyphony, each viol taking a part. In fact, playing vocal music on viols was common, and it is likely that Byrd’s vocal music was often performed with a combination of voices and viols. A famous piece for viol consort is Byrd’s In Nomine a4.

While Byrd did not compose much secular music besides the instrumental music mentioned above, he did leave a few gems to adorn the English madrigal tradition. In the words of Susan Treacy, Byrd’s Though Amarillis dance in green is “among the best in England’s madrigal garden”.2 The Fretwork ensemble—one of England’s leading viol consorts—has a charming rendition with soprano Grace Davidson.

Byrd continued to live at Stondon Massey until his death. Although it seems that he began to be fined more heavily after he moved away from London, he nonetheless died a wealthy man. In the 1590s or slightly after, he composed Mass settings for three, four, and five voices. Although they were probably only intended for use in recusant homes, he had these printed, and audaciously included his name on every page of the music—perhaps he was not as “tame” as some thought. These were the first settings of the Mass to have been composed in England since the restoration under Queen Mary in the 1550s. While the Mass texts are set to sublime music, there is relatively little word painting or unusual emphasis except on the words of the Credo: et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam. In each setting, all the voices come together, emphasizing these words with the clarity of homophony.

Byrd’s dedication to his faith was confirmed in his will, where he wrote that he desired to die as he had lived: “And that I may live and die a true and perfect member of his holy Catholic Church without which I believe there is no Salvation”. He also asked to be buried “near unto the place where my wife lies buried.” Although I have spoken primarily of his life as a musician, Byrd’s life as a recusant Catholic should serve as inspiration for Catholics today, who face varying degrees of persecution not only from secular governments, but from within the Church’s hierarchy itself. Figures like Byrd remind us that the creation of great art is possible even in times of adversity.

Byrd’s music is part of that culture which is ours by right as Catholics and inheritors of European Christendom. It is ours to know and to pass on. As Joseph Shaw has commented in The Liturgy, the Family, and the Crisis of Modernity, the culture which we need as individuals and families is not simply devotional. We need to create

an environment in which parents and children can truly feel at home is not built exclusively on prayer and the sacraments. The family needs culture. It needs a tradition of cooking, of clothing, of architecture, of home decoration; it needs Christmas carol and fairy stories….Catholic culture is a natural culture as well as a supernatural one, and it is the family’s task to maintain it, develop it, and pass it on.

Music like Byrd’s is an excellent middle ground between the purely secular and the religious. Primarily inspired by liturgical worship, it can be apprised as art for its own sake. At a time when it is hardly possible for earnest Catholics to follow the degrading trends of secular culture and difficult to reconcile living the traditional faith with the attitudes of many Catholic leaders, the feeling that faithful Catholics are recusants is increasing. In the fight against what Shaw calls the “final capture of the Church as a human institution by her enemies,” it will be the “refusal of ordinary Catholics to go along with” the Church’s secularization which will ultimately preserve the faith.

Let us take inspiration then, from the life of William Byrd. Let us take time to soak in the beauty his music contains; such peaceful nourishment on transcendent art will give—like prayer—our recusancy depth and piety. Such nourishment will prevent our senses and souls from being deadened by the pervasive banality and ugliness which fills our world.

Listen—and don’t let any monarch, reformation, or liberal Catholic tame you.


1 Quoted in Philip Caraman, Henry Garnet (1555-1606) and the Gunpowder Plot (New York: Farrar, Straus & Co., 1964), p. 320.

2 The Music of Christendom (Augustine Institute & Ignatius Press: 2021), p. 70.

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About Julian Kwasniewski 6 Articles
Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy.


    • Well Brian we have all eternity to find an opportunity to ask Mr. Byrd that question.
      I used to have a vinyl record of Wm. Byrd’s music. It’s been a very long time, but I remember enjoying it.

    • Love these sort of “gotcha” questions, so typical of the Fundamentalist mindset. Sad. Anyway, from his will, right before the line quoted in the essay:

      First: I give and bequeath my soul to God Almighty, my creator and redeemer and preserver: humbly craving His grace and mercy for the forgiveness of all my sins and offences; past, present and to come.

      Entire text here.

    • The music kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it, Brian? The active imagination of the artist is turned towards God, and consequently, the work glorifies God. What more is there to say? Try listening to some; or even better, singing it.

  1. It’s amazing how Catholics in the 16th c. living under persecution and oppression lived out our faith – no concessions, no compromises, taking risks with their lives, and no accommodations to heretical notions. Compare the recusants to today’s average Catholic.

  2. An excellent article! By the bravery of his life he demonstrated his love of Almighty God. Thank you, again, for an excellent presentation. I have his music on CD and, now, have learned so much more. As Paul Harvey used to say “now you know the rest of the story”.

  3. A very informative biographic sketch, though there is one other work of his that I think deserves particular mention, his Infelix ego, which could serve as something of an anthem for him.

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