Richard Turbet is our guest speaker over the first weekend of the William Byrd Festival when he co-presents ‘William Byrd: His Essex Years’. Tickets are now on sale, priced £12.50 (under 16s £6).
Richard says, “I think it is appropriate to begin by saying simply ‘William Byrd is England's greatest composer’. No point in pussyfooting around.”
Byrd was born around 1540 and became a well known organist, musician and composer of his day, writing and publishing both sacred and secular music. He was engaged as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, as such Queen Elizabeth’s sacred choir, following the death of Robert Parsons.
Byrd moved to Stondon Massey around the year 1594 and spent thirty years in semi-retirement. It was at Stondon Massey that his true religious feelings came to the fore in the writing of his music. He was a great friend of the Petre family, who were Catholics and his Patrons, and made several visits to Ingatestone Hall, where his clandestine and illegal Catholic Masses were sung. He later wrote a complete set of music for the church year – two books of ‘Gradualia’, the second of which in 1607 was dedicated to his patron, John Petre. This was a most dangerous and daring pursuit.
“It was well known to the authorities that Byrd was composing and publishing music for the Roman Catholic church” Richard says. “Indeed, the person who licensed Byrd's two books of ‘Gradualia’ (the music he composed for the services of the RC Church throughout the liturgical year) was Richard Bancroft, successively the Anglican Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury.”
“Byrd was a formidable networker and had friends in the highest places - from the Queen and subsequent King downwards. He composed and published a large quantity of music for the illegal Roman Catholic rite. Such was his status with The Queen, by whom he was employed as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, no action was taken against him."
Byrd also composed a small but significant amount of music for the Church of England. This included the Great Service as well as other anthems.
“His Roman Catholic music could not be performed in the Anglican Church during his lifetime. His Latin music started to be published again in the 1840s, but even between his death and then it was never neglected, and it circulated in manuscripts among prominent London musicians. However during the earlier twentieth century it gained acceptability among the Anglican hierarchy”. Today his Latin work has been recorded by Cardinall’s Musick under its director Andrew Carwood. The completion of this cycle of work has been likened in importance to Bach’s Cantatas and Beethoven’s piano sonatas.
On his death in 1623 Byrd was described as the ‘Father of Music’, perhaps due more to his great age – and seniority in the Chapel Royal, much like is described ‘The Father of the House’ of the senior politician in the British Parliament – than being at the vanguard of new music.
In many respects William Byrd’s music is as well known as it has ever been.