Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Byrd, William
BYRD, WILLIAM (1538?–1623), musical composer, is generally supposed to have been the son of Thomas Byrd, a gentleman in the Chapel Royal under Edward VI and Mary. This statement is pure conjecture; there were several families who bore the same name at this period. The only evidence corroborative of it is that William Byrd's second son was named Thomas, possibly after his grandfather. Similarly it has been said that ‘in the year 1554 he was senior chorister of St. Paul's, and consequently about fifteen or sixteen years old; and his name occurs at the head of the school in a petition for the restoration of certain obits and benefactions which had been seized under the Act for the Suppression of Colleges and Hospitals in the preceding reign’ (Rimbault, Some Account of William Byrd and his Works, prefixed to the reprint of Byrd's Mass, published by the Musical Antiquarian Society in 1841); but even this detailed statement cannot be verified, as the petition is not to be found in the Public Records, and the proceedings referring to the pensions in the exchequer (Queen's Remembrancer, Memoranda Rolls, 1 and 2 Phil. and Mary, 232, 238, 262 b) do not contain the name of William Byrd, though two other choristers named John and Simon Byrd are mentioned. It is more probable that he was a native of Lincoln and a descendant of Henry Byrd or Birde, mayor of Newcastle, who died at Lincoln 13 July 1512, and was buried in the cathedral. All that is known for certain of Byrd's early life is that he was ‘bred up to musick under Thomas Tallis’ (Wood, Bodleian MS. 19 D. (4), No. 106), and was appointed organist of Lincoln probably as early as 1563. On 25 Jan. 1569 Robert Parsons, gentleman of the Chapel Royal, was drowned at Newark-upon-Trent, and on 22 Feb. following Byrd was sworn in his place. The entry in the Chapel Royal Cheque Book records that he was from Lincoln. On 14 Sept. 1568 he was married at St. Margaret's-in-the-Close, Lincoln, to Julian (or, as her name otherwise appears, Ellen), daughter of one ‘M. Birley of Lincolnshire’ (Visitation of Essex, 1634, Harl. Soc. Publications, vol. xiii.). It is possible that immediately on his appointment at the Chapel Royal Byrd did not leave Lincoln. At all events he must have kept up some sort of connection with the place, for on 7 Dec. 1572 the Chapter Records chronicle the appointment of Thomas Butler as master of the choristers and organist, ‘on ye nomination and commendation of Mr. William Byrd.’ In London Byrd seems rapidly to have made his way, sharing with Tallis the honorary post of organist of the Chapel Royal. On 22 Jan. 1575 Elizabeth granted the two composers and the survivors of them a license to print and sell music, English or foreign, and to rule, print, and sell music-paper for twenty-one years, all other printers being forbidden to infringe this patent under a penalty of forty shillings (Arber, Transcript of the Stationers' Registers, ii. 15). This monopoly has generally been considered to have been very productive to the patentees, but that it was not so regarded by contemporary printers is proved by a passage in a petition relating to these vexatious restrictions, which was written in 1582: ‘Bird and Tallys, her maiesties servauntes, haue musike bokes with note, which the complainantes confesse they wold not print nor be furnished to print though there were no preuilege’ (ib. p. 775). The first work which Byrd published (if the undated masses are excepted) was a collection of motets, ‘Cantiones, quæ ab argumento sacræ vocantur, quinque et sex partium.’ Part of these were written by Byrd and part by his master, Tallis. The book was dedicated to Elizabeth and printed by Thomas Vautrollier; it appeared in 1575. Prefixed are eulogistic verses by Richard Mulcaster and Ferdinando Richardson, and at the end is an epitome of the patent granted to the authors. In 1578 Byrd was living at Harlington in Middlesex, where he had a house until 1588, and possibly for longer. Like most of the members of the Chapel Royal, although outwardly he had conformed to the state religion, yet he remained throughout his life a catholic at heart. The first evidence we have of this is a quotation given by Dr. Rimbault (Grove, Dict. of Music, i. 287 b) from a list of places frequented by recusants near London, in which his name occurs as living at Harlington in 1581, and ‘in another entry he is set down as a friend and abettor of those beyond the sea, and is said to be residing with Mr. Lister, over against St. Dunstan's, or at the Lord Padgette's house at Draighton.’ It was probably on account of his religion that he lived all his life some way out of London, where he would be less likely to attract attention. About 1579 Byrd set a three-part song, ‘Preces Deo fundamus,’ in Thomas Legge's Latin play ‘Richardus III’ (Harl. MS. 2412). In 1585 Tallis died, and under the terms of the patent the monopoly of printing music became Byrd's sole property. Accordingly, during the next few years he seems to have been unusually active in composition. His first important work was entitled ‘Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs of Sadnes and Pietie, made into Musicke of fiue parts: whereof, some of them going abroade among diuers, in vntrue coppies, are heere truely corrected, and th' other being Songs very rare and newly composed, are heere published, for the recreation of all such as delight in Musicke.’ This work (consisting of five part-books) was published by Thomas Easte, ‘the assigne of W. Byrd,’ in 1588. Rimbault (Bibliotheca Madrigaliana, p. 1) mentions another edition without date; probably this is the one referred to in an entry in the Stationers' Company's Registers (Arber, Transcript, ii. 477) as being already in print on 6 Nov. 1587. The work is dedicated to Sir Christopher Hatton; at the back of the title are eight quaint ‘Reasons briefely set downe by th' auctor to perswade euery one to learne to sing.’ In the same year (1588) Byrd contributed two madrigals to a collection made by one N. Yonge, entitled, ‘Musica Transalpina. Madrigals translated out of foure, fiue, and sixe parts, chosen out of diuers excellent Authors, with the first and second part of La Verginella, made by Maister Byrd, vpon two Stanz's of Ariosto, and brought to speake English with the rest.’ By this it will be seen that he was the composer of the first English madrigal. In the following year Byrd published two important works. The first was entitled ‘Songs of sundrie natures, some of grauitie, and others of mirth, fit for all companies and voyces.’ This consists of six part-books, and is dedicated to Sir Henry Cary, lord Hunsdon. It was published by Thomas Easte, and a second edition appeared in 1610, published by Easte's widow, Lucretia, ‘the assigne of William Barley.’ The second work was the ‘Liber Primus Sacrarum Cantionum quinque vocum,’ which was published by Easte on 25 Oct., and dedicated to the Earl of Worcester. An edition in score of this was published by the Musical Antiquarian Society in 1842. In 1590 Byrd contributed two settings of ‘This sweet and merry month of May’ to Thomas Watson's ‘First Sett of Italian Madrigalls Englished,’ and in 1591 (4 Nov.) he published the ‘Liber Secundus Sacrarum Cantionum,’ dedicated to Lord Lumley. These printed books do not by any means represent all that Byrd produced at this period of his career. As a composer of music for the virginals—the English equivalent for the spinet—he was indefatigable, and fortunately many collections of these characteristic pieces are still in existence, though but few of them have been printed. The most important are the manuscript in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, wrongly known as ‘Queen Elizabeth's Virginal Book,’ which contains an immense number of Byrd's compositions, and the beautiful manuscript ‘Ladye Nevell's Booke,’ belonging to the Marquis of Abergavenny, which consists entirely of Byrd's virginal lessons, and was copied by John Baldwin, a singing-man of Windsor, who finished the volume on 11 Sept. 1591 (Grove, Dict. of Music, iii. 305 et seq.) In April 1592 Byrd was still living at Harlington, but about 1593 he became possessed of the remainder of a lease of Stondon Place, Essex, an estate belonging to William Shelley, who was shortly afterwards convicted of high treason. The property was sequestrated, and on 15 July 1595 Byrd obtained a crown lease of it for the lives of his eldest son Christopher and his daughters Elizabeth and Rachel. William Shelley, the rightful owner, died about 1601, and his heir paid a large sum for the restoration of his lands in 1604, whereupon Shelley's widow attempted to oust Byrd from Stondon, which formed part of her jointure. This drew from James I a letter of remonstrance (State Papers, Dom. James I, Add. Ser. vol. xxxvi.), commanding her to permit Byrd quietly to enjoy the possession of the property; but in spite of this Mrs. Shelley persevered, and four years later (27 Oct. 1608) she presented a petition to the Earl of Salisbury, praying for the restoration to her of Stondon Place, and setting forth in an enclosure eight grievances against Byrd. The chief of these are that Byrd in 1608 began a suit against Mrs. Shelley to force her to ratify the lease he had from Elizabeth; but being unsuccessful, he combined with the individuals who held her other jointure lands to maintain suits against her, and when all these had submitted except ‘one Petiver,’ who also finally submitted, ‘the said Bird did give him vile and bitter words;’ that when told that he had no right to the property, he replied ‘that yf he could not hould it by right, he would holde it by might;’ that he had cut down much timber, and for six years had paid no rent (ib. vol. xxxvii.) What the end of the dispute was does not transpire. Mrs, Shelley 1608 was serenty years old, and as both Byrd's son and grandson occupied the same property, it is probable that she did not live much longer. While Byrd was in the possession of lands belonging to a recusant, and was actively engaged in performing his duties in the Chapel Royal, where he was present at the coronation of James I, he was not only being presented with his family for popish practices before the archidiaconal court of Essex, but he had actually been excommunicated since 1598. From 1605 until 1612, and probably later, it was regularly recorded that the Byrd family were ‘papisticall recusants.’ Mrs. Byrd in particular, if the reports of the minister and church wardens of Stondon are to be believed, seems to have been very zealous in making converts. Apart from these incidents, the particulars of Byrd's life consist chiefly of of the list of his published works. In 1600 Byrd contributed instrumental music to ‘Parthenia,’ a collection of virginal lessons by Bull, Orlando Gibbons, and Byrd. On 15 Oct. 1603 Easte published ‘Medulla Musicke. Sucked out of the sappe of Two [of] the most famous Musitians that euer were in this land, namely Master Wylliam Byrd … and Master Alfonso Ferabosco … either of whom having made 40tie severall waies (without contention), shewing most rare and intricate skill in 2 partes in one vpon the playne songe “Miserere.” The which at the request of a friend is most plainly sett in severall distinct partes to be sunge (with moore ease and vnderstanding of the lesse skilfull), by Master Thomas Robinson,’ &c. (Arber, Transcript of Stationers' Registers, iii. 247). All copies of this work seem to have disappeared, and its existence was only revealed by the publication of the entry in the Stationers' Registers. Thomas Morley (Introduction, ed. 1608, p. 115) mentions how Byrd (‘never without reverence to be named of musicians’) and Ferabosco had a friendly contention, each one judging his rival's work, and he adds that they both set a plain song forty different ways; but it was not previously known that the result of their labours had been printed. In 1607 appeared the first and second books of ‘Gradualia, seu Cantionum Sacrarum,’ &c., of which the first book was dedicated to the Earl of Northampton in terms which seem to imply that the author had received some special protection or benefit from that nobleman: ‘Te habui, atque etiam (ni fallor) habeo, in afflictis familiæ meæ rebus benignissimum patronum.’ In the same dedication Byrd alludes to the increase in the salaries of the gentlemen of the chapel which was obtained by the earl's help in 1604. A second edition of this book appeared in 1610. The second book of the ‘Gradualia’ is dedicated to Lord Petre; a second edition was issued by the author in 1610. In 1611 appeared ‘Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets: some solemne, others joyfull, framed to the life of the Words: Fit for Voyces or Viols, &c.’ This work was dedicated to Francis, earl of Cumberland, and contains a quaintly written address by the author ‘to all true louers of musicke.’ The last work which Byrd contributed to was Sir William Leighton's ‘Teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowfull Soule’ (1614), in which four of his sacred vocal compositions are contained. Byrd's death took place (probably at Stondon) on 4 July 1623. It is recorded in the ‘Chapel Royal Cheque Book’ as that of a ‘father of musicke,’ a title which refers as much to his age as to the veneration in which he was held by his contemporaries, a feeling which was expressed by Peacham (Compleat Gentleman, ed. 1622, p. 100) as follows: ‘In Motets, and Musicke of pietie and deuotion, as well for the honour of our Nation, as the merit of the Man, I preferre aboue all other our Phœnix, M. William Byrd, whom in that kind, I know not whether any may equall. I am sure, none excell, euen by the iudgement of France and Italy. … His Cantiones Sacræ, as also his Gradualia, are meere Angelicall and Diuine; and being of himselfe naturally disposed to Grauitie and Pietie, his veine is not so much for light Madrigals or Canzonets, yet his Virginella, and some others in his first set, cannot be mended by the best Italian of them all.’ In addition to the works already mentioned, Byrd wrote three masses, for three, four, and five voices respectively. These were all printed without title-pages, probably in 1588, and have been published in modern editions. Manuscript compositions by Byrd are to be found in the British Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum, Buckingham Palace, Lambeth Palace, Music School (Oxford), Christ Church (Oxford), and Peterhouse (Cambridge) collections. According to an old tradition (alluded to in some prefatory verses to Blow's ‘Amphion Anglicus’) a canon by Byrd is preserved in the Vatican, engraved on a golden plate; this has generally been supposed to be the well-known ‘Non nobis, Domine,’ the authorship of which is usually ascribed to Byrd.
Byrd's arms were three stags' heads caboshed, a canton ermine, and not those engraved in the Musical Antiquarian Society's edition of the mass. By his wife, Ellen Birley, he had six children: 1. Christopher, who married Catherine, daughter of Thomas Moore of Bamborough, Yorkshire, and had a son named Thomas, who was living at Stondon in 1634; 2. Thomas, who was a musician, and lived at Drury Lane; he acted as deputy to John Bull [q. v.] at Gresham College and was alive in 1651; 3. Elizabeth, who married twice (her husbands' names were John Jackson and Burdett); 4. Rachel, who married (1)—Hook, by whom she had two children, William, and Katherine, wife of Michael Walton, and (2) Edward Biggs; 5. Mary, who married (1) Henry Hawksworth, by whom she had four sons, and (2) Thomas Faulconbridge; and 6. Anne, who died young. A portrait of him—which was probably imaginary—was engraved by Vandergucht for a projected ‘History of Music’ by N. Haym, a work which never appeared.[The documents quoted above from the State Papers and Archidecanal Records were printed by the writer in the Musical Review (1883), Nos. 19, 20, 21; Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal (Camden Soc. 1872), pp. 2, 10, 183; information from the Rev. A. R. Maddison and Mr. W. H. Cummings; Registers of Harlington; authorities quoted above.]