Anglican Notables – William Byrd – 4 July

Anglican Notables – William Byrd (Composers, Musicians) – 4 July

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, _Ut Unum Sint_, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

William Byrd – Born ca. 1540 (London, England) – Died 4 July 1623 (Stondon Massey, Essex, England).

Musician: Composer; Gentleman of the Chapel Royal

[ Image: Anonymous 18th-century engraving of William Byrd placed on a musical-notation background. ]

William Byrd was emphatically not Anglican.  He was Catholic, and this at a time when Catholics risked execution for celebrating Mass and fines for not attending services of the established Church.  But Byrd, as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal and as one of the most accomplished composers of the late Renaissance, helped establish a high benchmark for Anglicanism’s musical heritage.  In that sense, Byrd, though not an Anglican, helped assure the Anglican choral heritage was off to a good start.

Byrd, his older colleague Thomas Tallis, his younger colleague Orlando Gibbons, and others among the Tudor Masters (composers of the English Renaissance) set the standard for Anglican choral music by writing music “notable for [its] calm restraint and dignity”  (Temperley).  This restraint favored clear declamation of texts and, as Byrd put it (in terms that describe lectio divina) acknowledging the “hidden power … in the thoughts underlying the words themselves; so that, as one meditates upon the sacred words and constantly and seriously considers them, the right notes, in some inexplicable manner, suggest themselves”  (Fellowes, 80, quoted in Long, 259).  The fact that Byrd understood not only how to write music well but also how to read Scripture prayerfully tells us much that music histories often overlook.

Exactly how Byrd not only survived but thrived as a Catholic composer in the very heart of Elizabeth I’s ecclesiastical establishment is a mystery that might never be completely solved.  (It seems Byrd was not only an intelligent composer but also a diplomat of no mean ability.)  But the work of scholars such as Joseph Kerman and Kerry McCarthy indicates Byrd’s theological perspective, as a Catholic, is expressed in the compositional choices he made, certainly in his music written ostensibly for Catholic liturgy (though not permitted to be performed as liturgical music during his lifetime), and no doubt in his music for Anglican liturgy as well.

For those who have access to the _New York Review of Books_, Joseph Kerman’s piece in the 17 May 1979 issue remains a classic on this topic.  To pique interest in Kerman’s article, here are a couple of paragraphs:

“Music historians … have failed or refused to see [Byrd] clearly enough against the background of his religion. It is not that his religious convictions have ever been in the slightest doubt. He wrote great quantities of Latin liturgical music for Catholic services, and a high proportion of the records of his life that have come down to us concern his Catholic activities and activism. So many, indeed, that in the standard life-and-works by E.H. Fellowes, which has three chapters on the life, one of these chapters is devoted entirely to ‘Byrd’s Association with the Catholics.’ But as the word ‘association’ in this context perhaps already suggests—would one speak of ‘Milton’s Association with the Puritans’?—Byrd’s Catholicism was something that Fellowes could never take quite seriously. A decidedly stiff-necked Victorian clergyman, the author of a major work on Anglican Cathedral music, he never missed an opportunity of pointing out that Byrd also wrote admirable music for the Church of England liturgy—though to be sure, there was very much less of this than of the Catholic sacred music. In the early part of this century Fellowes performed wonders in the publishing and publicizing of Byrd’s music, but he did this in an ecumenical spirit which seriously obscured its fundamental sectarian nature.

“Thanks partly to Fellowes’s work, it is now customary, at least in English and American musical writings, to rank Byrd with the main masters of late sixteenth-century music—with Palestrina, Lassus, and Victoria. He is so ranked, for example, in Howard Mayer Brown’s recent Music in the Renaissance (1976). This is not, I think, a case of mere chauvinism on the part of English scholars and critics, and mere superstition on the part of Americans. A study just published of The Consort and Keyboard Music of William Byrd, by Oliver Neighbour, illuminates sharply the greatness of Byrd’s instrumental music; he was the first major composer to devote a substantial effort to music without words. Getting Byrd’s Latin sacred music into correct focus—a Catholic focus—will allow a clearer view of another body of his music which is equally great. And when this music is in its correct focus it also will be seen to illustrate the responses of the Elizabethan Catholic community in a unique way. Resources are available to art and to artists that are not available to even the greatest saints and heroes of traditional Catholic history.”

Yet another curiosity about historical accounts of the Renaissance is how the Elizabethan-and-early-Jacobean era is often referred to as the Age of Shakespeare while the contributions of Tallis and Byrd are somehow overlooked.

Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.


Fellowes, Edmund.  William Byrd.  Oxford University Press, 1948.

Long, Kenneth.  The Music of the English Church.  London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991.

McCarthy, Kerry Robin. Liturgy and Contemplation in Byrd’s Gradualia. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Temperley, Nicholas.  “Anglican and Episcopalian Church Music.”  Grove Music Online: – accessed November 15, 2006.


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