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   Chapter 2 WILLIAM BYRD

Twelve Good Musicians By Frederick Bridge Characters: 12873

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04


1542 or 3-1623

A great contemporary of John Bull comes next for consideration. William Byrd is certainly one of the most distinguished of the remarkable company of English composers living in the early years of the 17th century. Curiously enough, he was not included amongst the contributors to The Triumphs of Oriana. There may be a reason, of which more anon. Anthony Wood tells us "he was bred up to musick under Thomas Tallis," and the eminent Church musician was god-father to Byrd's son Thomas. Byrd was also Tallis' executor. In early life the subject of my Lecture was Organist of Lincoln, in which city he was married on the 14th of September, 1568. His eldest son was born at Lincoln in 1569, and a daughter in 1571-2. This proves he did not at once come to London on his appointment to the Chapel Royal. This was in 1569, when he succeeded Robert Parsons as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, the said Robert Parsons having been drowned at Newark in January of that year. It seems probable that Byrd kept up some kind of connection with Lincoln for some time after his appointment to the Chapel Royal, for an entry in the Chapter Records of Lincoln mentions the appointment of Thomas Butler as Organist and Master of the Choristers on the "nomination and commendation of Mr William Byrd." In London he shared with his old master, Tallis, the post of Organist of the Royal Chapel and he also enjoyed with him a privilege of a more profitable nature, which was no less than a patent, granted by Queen Elizabeth to print and sell music, English or foreign, and to rule, print and sell music paper for twenty-one years, and all other printers were forbidden to infringe this license under penalty of forty shillings. A petition from some printers, having reference to this license, shows it was not altogether a popular privilege. The complainants say: "Byrd and Tallys, her Majesty's Servants, have musicke bokes with note, which the Complainants confess they would not print, nor be furnished to print, tho' there were no privilege." I think this may be regarded as a little specimen of professional jealousy.

Whether the privilege was a great financial benefit to the two old Masters one cannot say, but, anyhow, it was of great advantage in one way, and that was the opportunity it gave of printing and publishing their own works, and Byrd was not slow in taking advantage of it. In 1575 appeared his first published work, as a set of "Cantiones" in 4, 5, and 6 parts. Some of the compositions were by Tallis and some by Byrd, and they are fine and dignified specimens of both composers. One by Tallis in particular is a beautiful example of his treatment of a Chorale, the parts flowing in charming melody and the whole work abounding in interesting and clever "imitation." I have been able to publish this fine example of early Church music, and it has been well received "in Quires and places where they sing." With the exception of "If ye love me" I do not know any anthem by Tallis which compares with it in solemn and chaste expression. It shows Byrd's old master-one of the founders of our Cathedral music-at his very best.

On the death of Tallis 1585, the patent was enjoyed by Byrd alone, and he made very good use of it. One of his first publications was entitled Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs of sadness and pietie, made into musicke of 5 parts; whereof some of them going abroad among divers, in untrue coppies, are heere truely corrected, and the other being Songs very rare and newly composed, are heere published, for the recreation of all such as delight in Musicke (1588).

At the back of the title-page of this work are the following "Eight Reasons briefly set down by the Author to perswade every one to learn to sing:"

1. First it is a knowledge easily taught and quickly learned where there is a good Master and an apt Scholar.

2. The exercise of singing is delightful to Nature, and good to preserve the health of Man.

3. It doth strengthen all parts of the breast and doth open the pipes.

4. It is a singular good remedy for Stutting[1] and Stammering in the speech.

5. It is the best means to procure a perfect pronunciation, and to make a good Orator.

6. It is the only way to know where Nature hath bestowed the benefit of a good voice, which gift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand that hath it, and in many that excellent gift is lost, because they want Art to express Nature.

7. There is not any Musicke of Instruments whatsoever comparable to that which is made of the voices of Men, where the voices are good and the same well sorted and ordered.

8. The better the voice is the meeter it is to honour and serve God therewith, and the voice of man is Chiefly to be imployed to that End."

To the above is added the following couplet:

Since Singing is so good a thing

I wish all men would learne to sing.

In the same year appeared a work which was destined to wield tremendous influence upon English Musical Art. This was a collection of Madrigals called Musica Transalpina. Madrigals translated out of 4, 5, and 6 parts, chosen out of divers excellent Authors, with the first and second parts of La Virginella made by MAISTER BYRD upon two stanzas of Ariosto and brought to speak English with the rest. The inclusion of his name in this connection gives Byrd the claim to be considered one of the first, if not the first, of English Madrigal writers. And the fact that he contributed to this work may have possibly been the cause of the absence of his name from the collection made by Morley-which, of course, was an imitation of the publication which had appeared some twelve years before. This is merely a supposition, but there must be some reason for the exclusion of such a distinguished composer, and one already famous as a Madrigal writer. It is the more remarkable from the fact that Morley spoke of Byrd with the greatest respect and even affection.[2]

Two years later he wrote two settings of This sweet and merry month of May for Watson's First sett of Italian Madrigals Englished. Among his other vocal compositions are Psalms, Songs and Sonets, some solemne, other joyfull framed to the life of the words. Fit for voyces or viols. He also was a contributor to Leighton's Teares and Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soul, the work in which Bull's beautiful Motet appears. One of his works he dedicated to the Earl of Northampton, a

nd the dedication infers that not only had Byrd reason to be grateful to that nobleman, but so also had the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, as he seems to have been the means of securing an increase in their salaries. Of course many of Byrd's works were not published, and this is particularly the case with his compositions for the Virginals. Many are in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book[3] and also in Lady Nevill's Booke, which is a collection of Virginal Lessons, copied by a singing Man of Windsor named John Baldwin. Before leaving Byrd's professional life it is interesting to note his connection with another musical worthy contemporary, Alfonso Ferabosco; a joint publication of theirs will show this. It was entitled Medulla Musicke, sucked out of the sappe of Two of the most famous Musicians that ever lived, Master William Byrd and Master Alfonso Ferabosco, Either of whom having made 40 severall ways (without contention) shewing most rare and intricate skill in 2 parts in one upon the Plaine Song Miserere. This work was most probably the outcome of a "friendly contention" which they had "each one judging his rival's work, they both set plaine song 40 different ways."

In private life Byrd's religious feelings made his career rather an anxious one; like many others on the Chapel Royal Staff, though outwardly Protestant, he was probably a Roman Catholic. It was known that the Byrd family were "Papisticall recusants"; as early as 1581 he is mentioned as living at one of the places frequented by recusants, and is also set down as "a friend and abettor of those beyond the Sea, and is said to be living with Mr. Lister over against St Dunstans or at the Lord Padgettes house at Draighton." It is a noticeable thing that though his duties called him to the Chapel Royal, he lived nearly the whole of his life out of London. At one place, Stondon, Essex, he had some sequestrated property granted to him for three lives, but had a good deal of dispute with the previous owners, which went so far as to necessitate the King's intervention. In a law-suit in connection with it "one Petiver submitted the said Byrd did give him vile and bitter words," that when told he had no right to the property replied that "yf he could not hould it by right he would hould it by might." Byrd lived a long life, and died on July 4, 1623.

The exact entry recording this fact in the Chapel Royal Cheque Book runs "1623, William Byrd, a Father of Musick, died the 4th of July, and John Croker, a Counter Tenor of Westminster, was admitted for a year of probation of his good behaviour and civill carriage."

Mr Barclay Squire has discovered much of interest concerning Byrd, notably his Will. In this he expresses a hope that he "may live and dye a true and perfect member of God's holy Catholic Church, (without which I believe there is no salvation for me). My body to be honourably buried in that parish or place where it shall please God to take me oute of this life, which I humbly desyre (if it shall please God) may be in the parish of Stondon where my dwellinge is, and this to be buried neare unto the place where my wife lyeth buryed."

Of late years much attention has been devoted to Byrd's sacred music, which includes some remarkably fine Masses, some of which have been reprinted and used in the Roman Catholic Church. But Byrd has never been forgotten in the Cathedrals of England, for his Anthem Bow Thine ear has always found a place in the lists of the daily musical services. There is, also, a fine specimen of his composition in the volume of Cathedral music published by Dr. Hayes. It has English words, and for a long time appeared in the Abbey list as by Hayes, but it was identified as one of Byrd's Latin motets, and now is ascribed to the rightful owner.

An interesting specimen of his Clavier compositions is to be found in the Fitzwilliam volume being an arrangement of the air O Mistress Mine. This is one of the few pieces of Shakesperean music which was published in the Poet's life-time. It is charmingly treated by Byrd. The same air appeared in a work by Morley, an arrangement of various airs for a small Band consisting of the Treble Viol, Flute, Cittern, Pandora, Lute, and Bass Viol. It seems probable that this air was a popular tune and that Shakespeare wrote words to it, or possibly (as he did in Willo! Willo!) took the old words which were set to the melody and incorporated them in his play.

A contemporary opinion of Byrd can be gathered from Peacham's estimate of him in the Compleat Gentleman. Writing in 1622, he says: "In Motets and Musicks of piety and devotion, as well for the honour of our nation as the merit of the man, I preferre above all other our Phoenix, Mr. Wm. Byrd, whom, in that kind, I know not whether any may equall, I am sure none excell, even by the judgment of France and Italy. His Cantiones Sacrae and also his Gradualia are meere Angelicall and Divine and being himself naturally disposed to gravity and piety, his veine is not so much for light Madrigals and Canzonets, yet his Virginella and some others in his first set cannot be mended by the best Italian of them all." And Morley speaks of him as "my loving master, never without reuerence to be named of Musicians."

His name has always been associated with the Canon Non nobis Domine, but it would be very difficult to establish his claim to the authorship.

Altogether the old musician has a remarkable list of varied compositions to his credit. Besides those already mentioned he wrote some excellent Fancies and In Nomines for strings, making a real advance upon the somewhat stilted specimens of Instrumental Music then in vogue, and helping to free the Instrumental form of composition from the vocal. Fancies and In Nomines I shall speak of in detail in a later lecture.

William Byrd had a long and honourable career and contributed in a remarkable degree to the development of the Art of Music in England in the 17th century. There is much truth in Peacham's verdict that his music "cannot be mended by the best Italian of them all."

[1] i.e., stuttering; originally stot, from the German stottern. To "stut" is still used in Cheshire dialect, (v. Wilbraham's Glossary of Cheshire Words.)

[2] It may have been because he was a Roman Catholic and his name would not have been welcome to Elizabeth.

[3] Now published. Edited by Mr. Fuller Maitland and Mr. Barclay Squire.

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