William Byrd and the Catholics

William Byrd
William Byrd; drawing by David Levine


Until fairly recently the history of Catholicism in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was conceived largely in terms of hagiology. From the first history of the English Jesuits, by Father Henry More, grandson of Sir Thomas, in 1635, to the biography of the Blessed Edmund Campion by Evelyn Waugh, written exactly 300 years later, Catholic historians concerned themselves mainly with saints and martyrs, men of action and men of vision, with the pious great and the pious poor. They said little about poets and even less about artists or musicians; traditional historians have never been much interested in the arts. No doubt if they had found a Shakespeare among the faithful they would have made much of him. But they did not. They found only the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell; and it seemed rather beside the point to award Father Southwell the laurel since God had reserved for him the vastly greater glory of a martyr’s crown of thorns.

In fact the English Catholic community had among its members a much more brilliant ornament in the field of the arts. William Byrd, the premier figure of Elizabethan and Jacobean music, was also one of the greatest of all European composers of the time and arguably the greatest English composer of all time. But the art of music has been slow to acquire the prestige of poetry; when music did gain it (or something like it) Byrd’s music was no longer well known or easy to come by; and when this music at last became more generally available, the key to its interpretation as a Catholic statement was still lacking. And so Catholic historians have paid Byrd almost no attention.

Music historians, though they have paid more attention, have failed or refused to see the composer clearly enough against the background of his religion. It is not that his religious convictions have ever been in the slightest doubt. He wrote great quantities of Latin liturgical music for Catholic services, and a high proportion of the records of his life that have come down to us concern his Catholic activities and activism. So many, indeed, that in the standard life-and-works by E.H. Fellowes, which has three chapters on the life, one of these chapters is devoted entirely to “Byrd’s Association with the Catholics.” But as the word “association” in this context perhaps already suggests—would one speak of “Milton’s Association with the Puritans”?—Byrd’s Catholicism was something that Fellowes could never take quite seriously. A decidedly stiff-necked Victorian clergyman, the author of a major work on Anglican Cathedral music, he never missed an opportunity of pointing out that Byrd also wrote admirable music for the Church of England liturgy—though to be sure, there was very much less of this than of the Catholic sacred music. In the early part of this century Fellowes performed wonders in the publishing and publicizing of Byrd’s music, but he did…

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