Qui decus es generi genti Philomelaque nostræ;
Birde precor longum voce manuque canas!
“You who are a glory to our race, and a nightingale to our people,
Byrd, I pray that you may make music with voice and hand for a long time!”
These words were penned by Robert Dow, who copied his favorite music into a beautiful set of partbooks during the 1580s. He included many more works by William Byrd than by any other composer—some nineteen Latin motets, as well as English songs and instrumental music—reflecting Byrd’s undoubted status as England’s preeminent musician following the death of Tallis in 1585.
Now in his early forties, Byrd enjoyed a well-paid job-for-life at Elizabeth I’s Chapel Royal, and the sole monopoly to publish music in England. A less principled man might have settled for a quiet life of court privilege. Not Byrd: even as he burnished his reputation as a composer of Anglican music at court, he associated with notorious English Catholics and Jesuit missionaries from overseas, and participated in secret Catholic worship. The dangers were real, especially in the febrile years surrounding the failed Spanish Armada: the authorities considered Catholicism akin to sedition, with punishments to match. Yet Byrd not only survived—almost certainly due to royal favor—but became the musical mouthpiece for England’s persecuted Catholics, producing a stream of works that eloquently articulated their predicament.
There was nothing intrinsically subversive about writing Latin motets in Elizabethan England; Tallis and Byrd had inaugurated their publishing monopoly by dedicating a collection of them to the Queen, albeit with a careful title: Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur—“Songs which on account of their subject matter are called sacred.” (Byrd’s arrestingly declamatory Emendemus in Melius is his opening contribution to this 1575 volume and makes for an auspicious debut in print.) The market for such works was not Anglican worship, where Latin was forbidden, but the musical cognoscenti who would meet to sing and play them for their edification and enjoyment. A flavor of such occasions is given by the evergreen maxim also found in Dow’s books: “wine and music gladden the heart.”
Nevertheless, the Latin motet was falling out of fashion in England. By 1599 Thomas Morley could describe it as “little esteemed,” and Byrd’s solo Cantiones volumes of 1589 and 1591 can be considered the spectacular final flowering of the genre. They draw together perhaps a decade of work: many of the motets are known from earlier manuscript sources, including Dow’s books. Laudibus in sanctis, an object-lesson in word-painting that would shame many a madrigal, is one of the few works newly written for publication; its exuberance stands in sharp contrast to the grave nature of many of the other motets, particularly in the 1589 collection.
Byrd’s remarkable music... is surely some of the most exquisite, heartfelt, and moving ever conceived for voices. He shows a profoundly modern awareness of rhetorical gesture and harmonic nuance.
The prevailing gloom is no accident. Byrd’s texts are often pleas for divine aid, expressions of anguished soul-searching, or—as in Vide Domine afflictionem nostram and Ne irascaris—laments on the fall of Jerusalem and the Israelite exile in Babylon, commonly used by English Catholics as metaphors for their own plight. Byrd’s remarkable music underscores such a reading: it is surely some of the most exquisite, heartfelt, and moving ever conceived for voices. He shows a profoundly modern awareness of rhetorical gesture and harmonic nuance: the heartbreaking simplicity of ‘Sion deserta est’ and the bittersweet use of the major mode in Ne irascaris, or the chilling harmonic turn at ‘Hierusalem facta est desolata’ in Vide Domine, are only the most obvious examples. Even an apparently festive work like Haec dies carries an undertone: when the Jesuit Edmund Campion was sentenced to death, he responded by declaiming exactly this text. As Patrick Macey has written, “it is difficult not to hear this joyous music as an evocation of Campion’s exultation in the courtroom.”
While such motets were surely frowned upon by those who had ears to hear, it is even more remarkable that Byrd dared to publish settings of the Mass in Latin. The Catholic liturgy had been prohibited by law for more than thirty years, and he could hardly have argued that they were for dilettante enjoyment. His three settings were published in simple pamphlets between 1592 and 1595, and the task was perilous enough that the printer, Thomas East, declined to identify himself. The four-part Mass was the first to appear; its Agnus Dei begins with a perfectly judged duet for the upper voices, before building to an intense, and ultimately cathartic, conclusion.
Almost exactly as he finished publishing his masses, Byrd and his family relocated to Stondon Massey in Essex, close to his Catholic patron Sir John Petre. He retained his membership of the Chapel Royal in absentia and continued to provide music for Anglican worship. The elaborate and highly inventive Great Service for two five-voice choirs probably dates from the late 1590s, as does the anthem Sing Joyfully, which was sufficiently popular that it was sung at the christening of James I’s daughter in 1605.
The chief work of Byrd’s Essex years was however his Gradualia: a complete cycle of music for the Catholic feasts, published in two volumes in 1605 and 1607. It was surely written for use in Petre’s chapel, where skilled musicians were available; their secret services must have been the most musically thrilling Catholic masses held in England since Byrd’s days as a choirboy during the reign of Queen Mary. The music of Gradualia could hardly be more different from the Cantiones motets. It radiates confidence, nowhere more so than in the extra-liturgical motet Laudate Dominum. It is not hard to imagine Byrd’s heart full as he undertook this labor of love, or as he penned his elegiac song Retire my soul, which appears in his final publication, the Psalms, Songs, and Sonnets of 1611.
Although Byrd was held in universal esteem, he must have seemed a conservative figure by the time of his death; the madrigal craze, for example, largely passed him by. Nevertheless, he was a respected teacher: in dedicating his madrigal Too much I once lamented to Byrd, Thomas Tomkins called him “my ancient, & most reverenced master.” Thomas Morley must have been amongst his earliest students; his apprentice work Domine, Dominus noster, written in 1576 when he was nineteen, goes so far as to conclude with five bars borrowed from Byrd’s 1575 Libera me Domine. Peter Philips also studied with Byrd before emigrating in 1582, though as a Catholic exile in Europe, his music developed in a very different direction: the stylistic chasm between Byrd’s work and Philips’ Italianate Ecce vicit Leo, published in 1613, could scarcely be wider. And yet it is hard not to echo the assessment of Henry Peacham, in his 1622 book The Compleat Gentleman: “For motets, and music of piety and devotion…I prefer above all other our Phoenix, M. William Byrd, whom in that kind, I know not whether any may equal, I am sure, none excel, even by the judgment of France and Italy.”