An extract from a booklet entitled ‘The Singing Church in Essex’, published in 1955 to coincide with the Exhibition of Essex Church Music held in the Chelmsford Cathedral Chapter House.
William Byrd was one of the greatest musicians of the sixteenth century, quite equal in stature to the great contemporary foreigners Palestrina and Lassus. His art shows a great step forward beyond that of Tallis in every way. The rhythmic and harmonic range has widened considerably and now, from some years’ experience in the setting of English words, we find a new sureness and freedom. We find Byrd writing with an engaging lilt.
In an age when the English language was at its finest the music of the period was to give the words their own importance, taking from them a new freedom. Byrd, like his master, Tallis, was a genius. Of his music it is possible to write as C. Henry Philips has written of his Three-part Agnus Dei, “Nothng so lovely has ever appeared from any pen”. Byrd caught the nobility of Tallis’s firmness of technique which has seldom been surpassed. There is something comparable between Shakespeare and Byrd in their creation of great art.
Byrd first comes into the Essex picture in 1574 when “the Earl of Oxenford made a lease for 31 years of the manor of Battylshall” at Stapleford Abbotts to take place at the death of the occupant. There followed a considerable amount of legal dispute concerning this lease, one of the many cases in which Byrd was concerned, and eventually the case went against him, rather unjustly as far as one can see. The next time we hear of Byrd in Essex is in the company of the Petre family. There are seven entries between 1586-90 in the Petre accounts which refer to visits made by Byrd. Mostly they are concerned with the purchase of horse-meat! The first entry is in October 1586:
Payed to John Reynoldes the lackey for Mr Bydes horsemeat and his sonnes at their comyng down from London ii s.
We know from other sources that Byrd had been friendly with the Petre family long before that. There is in the Britidh Museum a certificate which together with a letter in the Public Record Office, was sent by Byrd to William Petre concerning the case of a certain Mrs Tempest. Mrs Tempest was one of the instances of Byrd’s assistance to the Roman Catholic cause, which despite the wonderful Anglican settings that he wrote, he never forsook. Byrd remained a Roman Catholic – but a broadminded one – to the end of his days. This act of sympathy was in 1581.
In 1593 Byrd became an Essex man; he moved into Stondon Place at Stondon Massey, and so far as we know remained resident of Essex until his death in 1623, a period of thirty years. Of the three Byrd Masses that survive, two of them, the two four-part masses, belong to this period, as does the third volume of madrigals and songs. There is a note in the Essex Record Office, of the year 1608, which refers to the books of William Byrd:
2 Setts of Mr Bird’s books intituled Gradualia, the first and second sett.
One other sett of Mr Bird’s bookes contayninge songs of 3, 4, 5 and 6 parts.
One other of Mr Bird’s bookes of 5 parts.
The Gradualia belong to the Essex period. The first book includes the Ave Verum Corpus with its perfection of melodic outline. The Second Book is actually dedicated to John, first Lord Petre, Byrd’s next door neighbour at Stondon.
One of the Petre part-books, already mentioned, has a considerable number of Byrd’s compositions in it, mostly from the two books of Cantiones Sacrae. The First Book of Cantiones Sacrae has in it 11 pieces that are found in the Petre Book, including the short but brilliant Easter motet In resurrectione tua, which ends on a dazzling and complex Alleluia; and the Domine tu iurasti which John Alcock records as: “This piece in ye opinion of Mr Bird himself is ye best he ever compos’d”, a statement difficult to believe, since there is nothing special of note of it.
From the Second Book of Cantiones Sacrae we find six motets also to be found in the Petre collection, including the very beautiful Haec dicit Dominus with its unsurpassed tender expression and pathos: the fine Exsurge, Domine; and the Infelix ego which differs from all the other motets in that the words are neither biblical nor liturgical. There is one motet in the Petre part-book that is not found elsewhere, but of course it is only part of the six parts needed to make up the whole.
It was, of course, William Byrd who made the famous appeal to everyone to take up singing, in the prefix of his first collection.
And indeed in the hands of William Byrd all men might wish to sing. These words were printed in Psalms, Sonets & songs in 1588: a delightful collection some of which may be classed as madrigals but differ in style from others of the English School, like Wilbye. The last section includes the sublime little Lullaby.
There is no known epitaph to Byrd; it is believed that he was buried at Stondon as requested in his will. His only epitaph the simple entry in the ‘cheque book’ of the Chapel Royal:
1623. Wm. Bird a Father of Musick died the 4 of July.