Of all the great Renaissance composers, William Byrd (circa 1540–1623) is perhaps the most approachable, the most direct in his communication, and arguably the most modern in his concerns. The gloriously continual euphony associated with Palestrina and his school has for many listeners characterized the sound of the Renaissance, experienced over generations as a model that both gave expression to the Counter-Reformation and provided a template for how music should (until recent decades) weave seamlessly into the celebrations of the Roman Catholic liturgy.
Byrd’s music seems to offer something tauter and more concentrated than this. The English music that directly preceded his was wonderfully effusive, as in the endlessly elaborated, decorative lines of the Eton Choirbook, designed for performance in a resonant acoustic. From this expansiveness Byrd distils his expressiveness down to the essentials. There is something powerfully direct in his economical word-painting, and it is always restrained by its context: et ascendit in coelum, sing the voices of Byrd’s four-part Mass, and the music suddenly spirals upward with a harmonic twist through the voices that takes it into a whole new realm of feeling. But there is no indulgence in the phrase, and the words of the Credo continue on their sober way. Dona nobis pacem, at the end of the Agnus Dei of that same Mass, is a prayer for peace that results in a series of repeated, anguished dissonances as peace is ever sought but never found, resolving at the close into a brief moment of hope as harmony is fleetingly glimpsed in eternity.
Two linked reasons for Byrd’s contemporary appeal are suggested in Kerry McCarthy’s fine, thoughtful new book, which will now be the starting point for all enthusiasts for his music. One is the complex political setting of Elizabethan England in which Byrd had to maneuver. The other is Byrd’s personal credo as a composer, equally significant. Byrd’s approach to vocal composition was made explicit in several statements he wrote for his publications, and can be stated very simply: the words came first. This primacy of the text is central to all his music for voice; he wrote of one collection that it was “framed to the life of the words.” No composer has provided quite such an eloquent guide to the source of their inspiration as did Byrd when he wrote:
There is such a profound and hidden power in sacred words, as I have learned by trial, that to one thinking upon things divine and earnestly and diligently pondering them, the most suitable of all musical measures occur (I know not how) as of themselves and suggest themselves spontaneously to the mind that is not indolent and inert.
That concept of music flowing through the agency of the composer is a startlingly modern idea that recalls what Stravinsky said about himself as a mere vessel for the music that came through him (even though we have learned to be skeptical of some of Stravinsky’s pronouncements, this one has proved its staying power). The idea of music principally proceeding from and clothing text is one that has fluctuated through the history of the genre: it applies equally to Claudio Monteverdi in the seventeenth century and Benjamin Britten in the twentieth century (with some salient gaps in between). This is, as the English scholar John Milsom has repeatedly pointed out, the central clue to the effective performance of Byrd’s music, and is why performances that concentrate on pure sonority fail to make their mark, however beautiful the sound.
The political background to Byrd’s music is extraordinary, and it is to McCarthy’s credit that she does not let it overwhelm her narrative. William Byrd was for most of his life a Catholic in a Protestant country, protected by patrons, but always at risk. Born in London around 1540, with brothers in the St. Paul’s Cathedral choir, William was very likely in the Chapel Royal as a boy, where he would have learned from Thomas Tallis, to whom he remained very close as colleague and co-publisher. At only twenty-three Byrd was appointed to Lincoln Cathedral, where he wrote church music in English for the Anglican liturgy alongside much keyboard music; he returned to London as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572, as joint organist with Tallis.
Elizabeth I was an exceptional musical enthusiast and practitioner. Her support and patronage ensured Byrd and Tallis in 1575 a royal patent for music printing, and they jointly published a volume of motets to Latin texts, with the contorted title Cantiones, quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (roughly “songs that just happen to be called sacred because of their texts”). The volume did not do well, but that did not dissuade them from further publications.
Byrd’s situation was increasingly bizarre: a convinced Catholic in what had become a Protestant country, supported by the Protestant Queen, he continued to set and publish music not only to Latin texts but specifically designed for the Catholic liturgy. He was continuously under threat of punishment for not participating in Protestant worship. It is true that a significant number of Catholics—“recusants”—were able to maintain the practice of their faith during Elizabeth’s reign—some were punished, others flourished—but not many published music that actually advertised the fact.
Many of Byrd’s later Latin settings were written for the houses of the recusant gentry such as Edward Paston, where they would have been performed by small groups in a domestic setting (and how well it suits his music not to be subject to the warm glow of a cathedral acoustic, but to be heard in the concentrated acoustic of a small chapel or room). McCarthy admirably does not force or overdramatize the issue of Byrd’s recusant Catholicism, but at the same time she draws close attention to the significance of the texts he chose to set, with their frequent laments for a vanished world: “Thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.”
Byrd must have been a skillful politician with very powerful protectors: it seems likely that for him compromise and avoidance of conflict were the order of the day. He had an argumentative and litigious character (we find out more than we want to about his disputes in Lincoln and his legal wrangling to acquire land around him in Essex) but perhaps he knew exactly how far he could go in dissent without attracting drastic sanctions; and if the going got tough he could call in favors—at least one complaint against him was dismissed on the order of the Queen herself.
Even so her local officials kept watch. Byrd’s wife Julian is a shadowy figure who was long thought to have died many years earlier than is now believed (we still know little of her, to judge by how disappointingly little McCarthy has to say about her); she was more strenuous and less careful than her husband in proclaiming her Catholic observance, and one of her servants ended up in prison. On the other hand McCarthy recalls Byrd’s patron John Petre, dedicatee of the second volume of Byrd’s Gradualia, urging a servant “to go to the [Anglican] church for fashion sake, and in respect to avoid the danger of the law.”
You could perhaps, with enough compromise, reconcile life as a Catholic with Protestant observances. Yet Byrd’s music tells a different story: often bleak, always uncompromising, set to those pointedly chosen texts, it has a very direct message for anyone who cares to listen. It may seem tenuous to draw a link here across three and a half centuries, but the composer who seems nearest in our time to Byrd’s deeply conflicted situation is surely Dmitri Shostakovich, who remained in Communist Russia until the end of his life and whose music seems born from the personal conflicts he lived daily: each lived under a regime he could scarcely tolerate and for which he felt little sympathy, even abhorrence, yet by which he was ultimately protected and even promoted—as long as he kept his opposition veiled. Each was thus paradoxically enabled to produce music of the greatest possible power and emotional strength which implicitly or explicitly criticized the system that supported him, and which has continued to communicate across the years. Shostakovich’s late string quartets and Viola Sonata, Byrd’s late songs and motets—it is not fanciful to regard these as speaking with great subtlety and personal nuance a common language of oppression and isolation.
Byrd’s work has been closely studied by musicologists: indeed it has stimulated some of the finest writing on music in our generation, notably in the two completed volumes by Oliver Neighbour and Joseph Kerman of a planned trilogy devoted to Byrd’s music, whose third volume was to be have been written by Philip Brett; his untimely death prevented that, and his writings around Byrd have been gathered into a separate volume, William Byrd and His Contemporaries: Essays and a Monograph (2006). In the year of the 390th anniversary of Byrd’s death, McCarthy’s single-volume book is published in the very select company of “Master Musicians” available from Oxford University Press. (A curiously limited list of sixteen composers is covered in the currently available volumes; the previous incarnation of the series for J.M. Dent was much wider in its range; with rapid advances in scholarship some doubtless need revision or replacement, but it is sad to be deprived of Michael Kennedy’s excellent Britten or, in the field of early music, David Fallows’s exemplary Dufay.)
Neighbour, Kerman, and Brett divided Byrd’s music between them by genre, with Neighbour taking just the instrumental music and Kerman the Latin-texted works, creating some artificiality in the separate discussions. McCarthy can pull together all the musical genres in which Byrd worked; her focus is on Byrd’s own life and works, integrating them into one very successful narrative. She also provides a biographical frame that allows the story of his life to interweave seamlessly with the musical achievement.
Musically, Byrd was a pioneer. Joseph Kerman linked him with the Italian composer Alfonso Ferrabosco, who served at Elizabeth’s court off and on in the 1560s and 1570s. “Through Ferrabosco,” he wrote, “Byrd came to know—and became, it seems, the first English composer really to understand—classical imitative polyphony.” It is a large claim, and entirely justified, but Byrd would not be a great composer just because of that technical skill in weaving one line with another. It was his expressive skill in characterizing those phrases in melody, making one strand of words stand starkly against another, drawing out the contrasts and the meanings in each phrase, constructing a musical line that rises and falls perfectly in harmony with the text, with what Kerman rightly calls “his fertile instinct for shape and for musical construction,” that makes his music so often cut to the quick.
McCarthy’s heart, one feels, is in Byrd’s sacred music, and she catches his communicativeness well. Unlike Kerman, to whom her book is dedicated, she is inclined to view the two separate volumes of the magnificent collection called Gradualia as one. Published by Byrd, this intricate series of musical responses to the texts of the Catholic church year is surely one of the deepest and most powerful of the rhythms of the liturgical seasons. It is preceded by the plainchant repertory of the Gregorian age, and followed by Bach’s cantatas for the Lutheran liturgy; the first volume appeared early in 1605, while the second was perhaps delayed by the November 1605 discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the wave of anti-Catholic feeling that followed—Byrd wrote in 1607 that the second volume had been “long since completed and delivered to the press.”