In search of William Byrd’s lighter side

  • Themes: Culture

William Byrd is often seen as an all-too-gloomy artist — but glimmers of levity can be found in the great composer's varied oeuvre.

William Byrd
William Byrd. Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

This year being the 400th anniversary of his death, much has been written about the English Renaissance composer William Byrd, rightly celebrated as ‘a glory to our race and a nightingale to our people’ by one contemporary admirer. Byrd is most often framed through the lens of his recusant Catholicism, a tortured artist who ‘sacrificed everything for the faith’ (a touch of pragmatic, although clearly untrue, hyperbole from William Weston, a Jesuit acquaintance of Byrd’s) – but did the ‘Father of Musick’ have a lighter side?

Byrd’s reputation for ‘gravity and piety’ stems from the sacred music which makes up a significant proportion of his surviving compositions, and in particular his Latin motets. Many of these (although ravishingly beautiful and devastatingly poignant) are gloomy allegories for the state of the English Catholic community or pleas for divine intervention closely linked to the execution of English Catholic martyrs, many of whom were known personally to Byrd – undoubtedly a grim business. Even those thought upbeat, like Gaudeamus omnes and Laetentur caeli, are never far from these sentiments. His English-texted church music, too, although undeniably appealing and imbued with a sense of grandeur, is for the most part decorous rather than light-hearted, and the ‘jollity’ of his domestic devotional music (cf Turn our captivity, O Lord from his final songbook of 1611) is often more forced than genuine. Perhaps this is too much to ask of music designed for earnest religious contemplation (that being said, Byrd’s contemporary Thomas Weelkes certainly knew how to amuse himself – if not the Dean and chapter – in church).

So far, so serious – but what about William Byrd, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, favourite of Queen Elizabeth? The Elizabethan court was a famously (and fashionably) dismal place. One need only look as far as Byrd’s more lute-oriented contemporary, John Dowland, whose personal motto, semper Dowland, semper dolens, typifies both his musical output and a more general Elizabethan ‘age of melancholy’ (also captured in Hamlet’s opening soliloquy ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, Seem to me all the uses of this world!’). Dowland at least had the awareness to use it as the self-deprecating title of a piece for viol consort (part of an entirely appropriately-named set called Lachrimae, or Seven Tears), really leaning into his reputation.

And what of Byrd the man? What we know of him paints a picture of an irascible, pugnacious and litigious character, the opposite of the ‘mild and quiet’ Thomas Tallis, and arguably the archetype of the ill-tempered ‘great composer’ – certainly reminiscent of JS Bach (although no evidence survives of Byrd having a knife fight with a bassoonist).

Byrd seemingly had a habit of engaging in protracted disputes. In earlier life, friction with his puritanical Protestant employers at Lincoln Cathedral seems to have been caused by the virtuosity and verbosity of his organ playing – in Byrd’s defence, he wouldn’t be the last church musician to fall out with the clergy. But the same traits reappear later on, once Byrd had largely retired from London life and settled in the rural Essex parish of Stondon Massey, ostensibly to be near his wealthy Catholic Patron Sir John Petre. Here he began a whole series of legal battles with neighbours, tenants and the previous owner of his house, Stondon Place, who recounts Byrd saying in their dispute over ownership of the property that ‘if he could not hold it by right, he would hold it by might’. Byrd also reportedly directed ‘vile and bitter words’ towards an associate when they refused to actively support him in his legal wranglings (although again in mitigation, in the late 1590s Byrd had the house fitted with running water carried in ‘pipes of lead’, the effects of which might explain some of this behaviour).

So not much to be merry about, and certainly no evidence of Byrd following Cosmo Brown’s dictum for artistic success from Singin’ in the Rain, also articulated by Byrd’s contemporary, the Oxford don John Case in his Praise of Musicke of 1586: ‘the chief end of music is to delight’.

But a glimmer of levity can be found in Byrd’s secular vocal works: although again there is a preponderance of laments and elegies, and Byrd eschews entirely the ‘fa-la-la’s of the madrigal so heartily embraced by his peers and successors, the odd moment of dry humour can be found in his songs, as in Who made thee Hob, a duet in which Byrd satirises the overwrought emotion of the choirboy plays of the English theatre. Satire is also the intent of My mistress had a little dog, a lengthy and involved setting of an imagined mock trial on the death of a favourite lap dog, complete with legal language and a rather macabre reference to Tyburn, although again the humour stems from Byrd’s music acting as the ‘straight man’ (this song also marks Byrd’s only dalliance with Shakespearean bawdy wordplay, albeit not on the level of rudeness of the Catches of that later torchbearer of English musical greatness, Henry Purcell).

But it’s in his instrumental works that Byrd’s ebullience really takes form and flight (perhaps not a surprise, given his proclivities on the Lincoln Cathedral organ), often allied to a fondness for popular tunes. His Browning variations on ‘The leaves be green’, his keyboard Ut re mi fa sol la for three hands with ‘The Woods so Wild’ and ‘The Shaking of the Sheets’ woven through it, Walsingham (a set of variations on the Elizabethan song ‘Have with you to Walsingham’) and his first G-minor six-part consort fantasia, where the music builds from austere beginnings to the appearance of ‘Greensleeves’ in the upper two parts, all speak of a composer most at ease with and interested in the intellectual challenge and gamesmanship of pure musical composition, as well as a good tune. Even more striking is the dazzling virtuosity of John come kiss me now or his other fantasia on Ut re mi sa sol la but perhaps nowhere is this better exemplified than in The bells, an astonishing feat of Renaissance minimalism where Byrd builds a towering musical edifice over the simplest of repeating patterns, two adjacent notes in the bass, representing the titular bells.

While other examples in other genres – outliers like Haec dies and Praise our Lord, all ye gentiles, Laudibus in sanctis or This sweet and merry month of May – can be found, it’s arguably in his instrumental works that Byrd really lets his hair down and finds his happy place. Freed of the weight of meaning and dogma of both his faith and courtly convention and allowed simply to indulge in the joy of music for its own sake, he reveals, as Cosmo Brown would have it, his inner ‘honky-tonk monkeyshine’, or as his contemporary John Baldwin wrote ‘with fingers and with pen he hath not now his peer’, and if not an outright laugh, then certainly a wry smile.

Rory McCleery is Founder and Artistic Director of The Marian Consort.


Rory McCleery