2014-02-16 Notes from the Bench

“Lord, Make Me Know” by William Byrd

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate

The composer William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) is considered one of the great masters of English Renaissance music. His oeuvre of approximately 470 compositions includes sacred and secular vocal works, keyboard pieces, and music for small, Instrumental ensembles or consort music. Byrd made significant contributions to the sacred music repertoire of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions, composing church anthems, motets, masses and service music, and psalm settings. Through his works, Byrd assimilated and transformed the compositional forms and styles of his native England as well as those of continental Europe in a manner that gives his works their unique identity. Many of Byrd’s compositions were published during his lifetime; he and Thomas Tallis held a joint patent for the printing of music from 1575 until 1596.

Byrd was born in London. There is little documentary evidence of his early life or of his early musical training. His brothers sang as choristers at St. Paul’s Cathedral and it is probably that he did as well. He may have also been a chorister for the Chapel Royal under the tutelage of Thomas Tallis. Byrd’s earliest known professional employment was his appointment to Lincoln Cathedral as organist and master of the choristers, a position he held from 1563 until 1572. Following his departure from Lincoln, Byrd continued to send copies of his compositions there for which he was modestly compensated. In 1572, he was granted the prestigious post of Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, serving the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and named organist. Around 1594, Byrd went into semi-retirement from the Chapel Royal when he and his family moved to Stondon Massey, a small village in the county of Essex, where he lived for the remainder of his life.

Byrd’s life was often filled with turmoil, but despite this, enjoyed many productive years. Byrd’s family was likely Anglican, probably as conforming subjects of Henry VIII while the English reformation movement that was taking place. The church authorities at Lincoln Cathedral were influenced by the Puritanism movement and embraced many of their ideal for simple musical textures and intelligible texts, which was often at odds with Byrd’s polyphonic style. Queen Elizabeth was a moderate Anglican who appreciated elaborate ritual and music. Beginning in the 1570’s, Byrd began associating with Roman Catholics and eventually converted to Catholicism in the 1580s. The religious tensions in England present during the sixteenth century often put Byrd in a position where he was frequently in serious trouble; his membership of the Chapel Royal was briefly suspended and his travels were restricted. Although Elizabeth I granted Byrd a license to practice his faith, he often faced local assizes, censorship, and was required to pay fines and penalties. Byrd died in Stondon Massey in 1623.

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