William Byrd: English Musical Inspiration

William Byrd: English Musical Inspiration

Written by Anne E. Johnson

During the early Renaissance, European composers gushed over what they called the contenance angloise (English style) of polyphonic composition, which featured an acoustical richness that others tried to copy. Maybe it’s something in Britannia’s soil, but that intense sonic velvet remained the purview of English pens all the way through the early 20th century, when Vaughan Williams and Britten graced the world with their gorgeous melodies. But the arguable founding father of English musical beauty was William Byrd.

Byrd was born in the early 1540s, exact date unknown, into a family of merchants in London. He sang as a boy at the Chapel Royal, where he probably studied with the great Thomas Tallis, a favorite of Henry VIII. Byrd’s own output started in the reign of Mary Tudor. Throughout a series of church jobs, Byrd was occasionally called to task by his Protestant bosses for writing polyphony that was too complex or for using too much organ accompaniment in his music. Nevertheless, he was one of the most sought-after composers in the country, excelling in all the many genres he put his hand to, including both sacred and secular songs and both vocal and instrumental music. A few recent recordings serve as a reminder of what all the fuss was about.

Although Byrd worked for Protestants, he converted to Catholicism in midlife, inspiring him to turn his gifts to a different style of sacred music. Singing in Secret: Clandestine Catholic Music by William Byrd is a new recording of some of that output performed by The Marion Consort, under the direction of Rory McCleery (Delphian Records).

Among Byrd’s important Catholic compositions are Latin-language motets and Mass movements; the Protestant denominations insisted on translations of the liturgy into each region’s vernacular, although that tenet was less strictly observed in England than on the Continent. Byrd set the text “Miserere mei Deus” (Have mercy on me, God), a favorite among Renaissance composers of polyphony, including the revered Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez, whose work Byrd certainly would have known.

In their performance of this motet, the Marion Consort truly sinks its teeth into Byrd’s luscious choral polyphony. McCleery makes sure to emphasize the almost painfully passionate dissonances, the kind of thing that would have earned Byrd the stink-eye from some puritanical authorities.


More of Byrd’s polyphony can be enjoyed on In Chains of Gold, Vol. 2., a collaboration by the viol ensemble Fretwork, the brass group His Majesty’s Sackbutts & Cornets, and the choral Magdalena Consort, all led by William Hunt on Signum Records. Volume 1 was dedicated entirely to the music of Orlando Gibbons; about half of Volume 2 is by Byrd, with the rest a combination of works by contemporaneous English composers such as John Bull, Edmund Hooper, and Thomas Morley.

The thematic connection is that all the tracks represent “anthems,” which was the term used for religious choral songs in the Anglican church at the time; anthems are the English-language, Protestant equivalent of Latin motets.

As you can hear on Byrd’s setting of the text “Teach Me, O Lord,” anthems combined instruments and voices as well as often oscillating between homorhythmic choral sections and arioso passages for solo voice. It is a treat to have this excellent collection available.


Fretwork has been busy with Byrd in the past year or so. However, there is no overlap of material between the anthems album and Byrd 1588: Psalmes, Sonets and Songs of Sadnes and Pietie, which Fretwork made on the Resonus label along with the vocal group Alamire. David Skinner directs secular songs on this recording, quite a different genre from Byrd’s religious music.

Some of the songs are arranged for instruments only, which would have been commonplace at the time. Others are sung in counterpoint, whereas others are presented with solo voice and accompaniment. On “Come to Me Grief Forever,” mezzo-soprano Martha McLorinan gives an understated, affecting reading of a heartbreaking text.


It’s pointless to guess where Byrd provided the biggest influence to fellow composers, but his music for solo keyboard is certainly high on the list. He practically invented the industry of selling books of short keyboard works to amateur musicians; in this, he was way ahead of his time, since it was only in the early 19th century that composers universally began relying on published sheet music as a source of income. But there was Byrd in the late 16th century, charming a young noblewoman at her virginal (a small harpsichord) with his My Ladye Nevells Booke.

Two recent releases take a fresh look at this essential material. The 29-year-old American pianist Kit Armstrong recorded William Byrd and John Bull: The Visionaries of Piano Music for Deutsche Grammophon as part of an impressively thorough project that attempts to understand how Byrd and Bull, who lived a generation later, laid the technical groundwork for all piano composing and playing that followed. Armstrong has made a series of lecture-demonstrations on his YouTube channel which support and explain his research.

But for most listeners, the proof is in the playing. Armstrong is not a harpsichordist, nor is he concerned with historical performance practice that might re-create these pieces as Byrd heard them. Thus, he applies sustain pedal and rubato on modern piano in utterly anachronistic ways; this particular early-music enthusiast had to take some meditative breaths to keep from dismissing the whole record. But once I let the performance speak for itself, I came to like it very much. The interpretations are deeply thoughtful, exploring Byrd’s use of figuration, phrasing, and chords while remaining always expressive. It’s not even remotely 16th-century, but it is beautiful and sometimes quite moving.


As it turns out, presenting 16th-century music with a 19th-century aesthetic is not the most exotic thing to happen to Byrd’s keyboard works of late. The French label Le petit disque released a recording by harpsichordist Emi Nakamura called William Byrd & Japan (no, the composer never visited the Far East). The first half of the album is Nakamura’s careful and pleasing interpretations of a handful of solo keyboard miniatures such as “Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home”:


The album’s title, William Byrd & Japan, is explained by the inclusion of several sections of Byrd’s large programmatic harpsichord work called The Battel (sometimes spelled The Battell), comprising 13 short movements named after war-like elements such as soldiers marching into, fighting, and retreating from a battle. Here, the piece has been arranged for harpsichord with Japanese instruments, including the nohkan (Japanese flute) played by virtuoso Yukihiro Isso, who provides a dramatic obbligato line that sounds improvised, and Takinojo Mochizuki, a specialist in Japanese percussion; Nakamura supplies the original Byrd keyboard part. It is a fascinating experiment that bears little relationship to the original context of the piece, but it works if you imagine it as a new score to a Kurosawa film.


No matter the time or place, William Byrd remains an inspiration.

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