William Byrd has been on my mind lately, as I had written and revised a poem about him--I don't write poetry very often, but sometimes an inspiration comes to me--and I submitted it for publication, and I just heard that it's been accepted. (I'll tell you more about its appearance in print when I know more about the schedule.)
Then I've been listening to the new Stile Antico album of Tudor Church music, The Phoenix Rising--and then I read this blog post at the English Historical Fiction blog by Melanie Spiller, placing William Byrd as "A Catholic Composer in Queen Elizabeth's Court" in historical and musical context:
Byrd was firmly part of the group that defined Elizabethan culture, and it was
his musical innovations that shaped what would become known as the English
Byrd’s motets, the English version of the Italian madrigal, are
the epitome of High Renaissance style. He also took the disheveled condition of
English song in the 1560s and pulled it together to produce a rich and extensive
repertoire of songs for consorts, a form that Byrd took seriously and that had
no true imitators. He influenced lute songs with his consort pieces, and these
evolved into what would become a distinctively English anthem form, Byrd’s most
lasting legacy in English music.
His works for the virginal (a
harpsichord-like keyboard instrument) transformed it from a parlor toy into an
instrument of power and beauty. Byrd changed the direction of keyboard music,
making it possible for later lights to shine, such as Ludwig van Beethoven
(1770-1827) and Frederic Chopin (1810-1949)—especially after the invention of
the piano in 1770 or so.
Byrd’s direct impact on English composition can
be compared to that of Shakespeare’s influence on the theater. Thomas Morley
(c1557-1602) and Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) were his pupils, and possibly Peter
Philips (c1560-1628), Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), and John Bull (c1562-1628).
These, if you hadn’t guessed, are the royalty of English music during the
Spiller is attentive to the recusancy issue:
Times were tough for Catholics, and noblemen held secret Mass services in their
private chapels. Few were prosecuted for this treasonous act, although it’s
doubtful that Elizabeth I turned a blind eye. Byrd and Tallis were public
figures and they had to put on a show of compliance.
But Byrd was known
to be a Roman Catholic recusant, and he risked prosecution by writing Masses for
undercover use. For English Catholics, 1581 became a year of decision and
renewed commitment. In Harlingon, Byrd’s wife was cited for recusancy along with
a servant. Byrd himself wasn’t cited until 1585, when lists of suspected
recusant gathering places named his own house. The Byrd family was repeatedly
accused of being recusants and in 1605, they were accused of being long-time
seducers for the Catholic cause.
It was a terrible period for English
Catholics, with rumors flying, forced retirement, assassinations, and
executions. Byrd’s home at Harlington was searched twice, perhaps because he was
there when he should have been in London. Byrd and his family were fined hugely,
but there were concessions, probably at the behest of Elizabeth I. After all, he
was still composing official pieces for her.
And she also provides some analysis of Byrd's achievement that inspires me to look at other aspects of his music, especially his compositions for the keyboard:
Byrd was both a traditionalist and an innovator, converting Continental ideas of
counterpoint and imitation into a new native-English tradition, and his
expressive range was unusually wide.
Although his works were colored by
the times in which he lived, many of his motets, galliards, and pastorals are
exuberant and joyous. As a precaution against religious persecution, he took his
texts from the Bible and other unassailable sources and he wrote for both
Catholic and Anglican churches with equal genius.
His lifetime output—at
least what is credited to him—includes 180 motets, three Latin Masses, four
Anglican Services, dozens of anthems, secular part-songs, fantasias and other
works for viol consort, and variations, fantasias, dances, and other works for
keyboards. His vocal music includes psalms, sonnets and songs, and around 50
consort songs that could be sung or played by a consort of instruments.
Read the rest here.