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Composer William Byrd: Biography & Music

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

William Byrd was an important English composer of the late Renaissance period. This lesson explores his life and music, as well as his accomplishments in a wide variety of genres.

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a...Byrd!

It's 1611 and you need some new keyboard music for your dinner party. At the printer you pick up a new volume of keyboard music, which you notice is written by a man named William Byrd. Then you rush to church to make the morning service, and the choir sings music -- also by William Byrd. On your way home you stop at court to take care of business and hear the Queen's consort playing a composition by William Byrd. 'Who is this guy?' you wonder. 'It's like he's everywhere!' And he is. He's William Byrd, the Superman of 16th and 17th century music.

Byrd's Early Years

William Byrd
Engraving of William Byrd

William Byrd was born in 1539/1540 in London, England to Margery and Thomas Byrd. There were seven children in the family. William's two older brothers, Symond and John, sang in the choir at St. Paul's Cathedral. It's therefore likely that William received some sort of musical training from a young age.

Byrd had the good fortune to become a pupil of Thomas Tallis, the most prominent and talented composer in 16th century London. Byrd studied organ and composition with Tallis. He and Tallis would become lifelong friends and business associates.

Byrd's Appointments

In 1563, Byrd was appointed organist at Lincoln Cathedral. He met and married Julian Birley there. They had several children, including one named Thomas, after Thomas Tallis.

Lincoln Cathedral, completed in the 14th c.
Photo of Lincoln Cathedral

While serving at Lincoln Cathedral, Byrd composed numerous pieces for choir, viol, and keyboard. These works show an Italian influence and are written in a polyphonic style. Polyphonic music has more than one melody of equal importance sounding simultaneously.

Interior of Lincoln Cathedral
Photo of Lincoln Cathedral interior

Byrd returned to London in 1572 and was appointed organist at the Chapel Royal, a position he shared with Thomas Tallis. Together, they provided the worship music for the royal household. Queen Elizabeth, perhaps in a show of gratitude, granted the two composers a monopoly on the printing of music. They immediately published a collection of sacred songs dedicated to the Queen.

Byrd's Music

Byrd was a prodigious composer. He wrote music for every genre of his day. There are volumes of sacred songs suitable for both Catholic and Anglican worship. There are secular songs in English. There are pieces for choir, pieces for soloists accompanied by viols, pieces for viol ensembles, and collections of compositions for keyboard. In all of these genres, he did outstanding work.

A page from Parthenia for keyboard by William Byrd. Published 1611.
Page of music from a keyboard piece by Byrd

Byrd's sacred music was well represented by the two volumes of Gradualia, published in 1605 and 1607. These volumes contain short sacred songs that are used in the Proper of the Roman Catholic Mass. The Proper consists of the sections of the Mass that have a different text for each day. Byrd set these texts in such a way that the different pieces of the Proper would fit together musically, supporting each other and complementing each other. Prior to this, Proper texts were a bit of a mash-up, combining some music from here, some music from there, with no concept of the sections creating a musical whole.

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