William Byrd, Father of Music

Matthew J. Hall, harpsichord and organ

Music by William Byrd (c. 1539–1623)

Fantasia in C, BK 25
Fantasia in C, BK 27

Pavan and Galliard in a, BK 16

Pavan and Galliard: Ph. Tregian [in F], BK 60

Walsingham, BK 8

– pause –

Fantasia in d, BK 46

Clarifica me, Pater, BK 47–49
Gloria tibi Trinitas, BK 50

Lachrymae Pavan, BK 54, after John Dowland (1563–1626)
Galliard, BK 55, after James Harding (c. 1560–1626)

Callino Casturame, BK 35
The Carman’s Whistle, BK 36

Voluntarie: for my Ladye Nevell, BK 61

Quadran Pavan and Galliard, BK 70

“BK” numbers refer to the sequential numbering of Byrd’s keyboard works in Musica Britannica vols. 27–28.


William Byrd’s life spanned the reign of seven English monarchs in the most tumultuous century of that nation’s history; only the chaos of the mid-20th century matches the threat of utter destruction of that time. In the midst of this, Byrd single-handedly built Elizabethan musical culture, for, unlike Tallis before him or Morley after, none of his contemporaries were his equal. This was widely acknowledged in his time: John Bull said in 1597, “he is no Byrd, but an Eagle that soars high above us all.” In an apparent reference to the irony of a Catholic at the heart of Elizabethan musical culture, another contemporary called him the “Father of Music.” Besides his public service and musical path-blazing, he was loved and admired by his students, colleagues, and patrons, Protestants and Catholics alike—despite being frequently in cahoots with Catholic agitators and, by all accounts, a stubborn and litigious person.

In this concert, I play harpsichord and organ music from various periods in his life to trace his development as a composer and performer. In addition to works that seem to address his Catholic politics and faith, I will also perform works that evince Byrd’s special genius, present even in his earliest works: his flexible approach to imitation that balances cogency and variety, his elegant shaping of the rhythm of phrases and sections, and his “natural disposition to Gravitie and Pietie.”

The opening Fantasias in C show two examples of Byrd’s musical “prose,” one early and one late. Both works are transmitted in My Ladye Nevells Book. Copied in 1591 under Byrd’s close supervision, this source contains the best keyboard music Byrd had composed up to that date. The later work (25) shows Byrd writing in the motet style, having assimilated the latest developments in continental music of the 1570s and 80s (particularly the works of Clemens non Papa). The antiphonal exchange that opens the second paragraph of music alludes directly to vocal music with its canzona rhythm and striking elisions between the imagined choirs. A real vocal piece would intensify as the voices to enter in closer imitation at more extreme pitch levels, but this would not work nearly so well on the keyboard as in a choir. As the sections progress, the cadences become less well-defined and the counterpoint gives way to freer keyboard textures. By such means Byrd effectively translates the intensification effect of the motet form. The early work (27) is “a mean fancy,” that is, a fantasia in three strict parts in which the middle (“mean”) part is transferred from hand to hand. This type of piece was invented by the organist John Redford (d. 1547); it was revolutionary for the keyboard technique of the time, which favored chords of fifths and octaves or single melodic lines in each hand. While it may seem surprising that the idea to play two independent melodies with one hand was not sooner to arise, this was so because before c. 1550 organs had heavy actions and spinets and harpsichords were used principally for dance music, not polyphony. Byrd adopts a simple but compelling procedure for his “mean fancy”: most of the points are never transposed, but enter on the same pitch class in three different octaves. Each point in turn seems like a free elaboration of the last. All this creates an hypnotic, round-robin effect. Byrd makes a whole point of imitation out of the final cadence, piling them on with ever increasing variety and rhythmic foreshortening. The trajectory of this fantasia is not unlike the intensification of the later motet form, so it is easy to see why Byrd considered this early and relatively short work worth including in My Ladye Nevells Book.

The Pavan and Galliard in a and Pavan and Galliard: Ph. Tregian make another early-and-late juxtaposition. Both pavans are 16-bar stanza forms or “doubles,” which means each of the three stanzas and their respective repetitions is 16 bars long (=16x2x3). Byrd pairs both these pavans with “simple” or “single” galliards (=8x2x3). As is so frequently the case in pavan and galliard pairs, the pavans are the weighter compositions, while galliards ‘recompose’ musical ideas from the corresponding strains of their respective pavans in a lighter, breezier way. The Pavan and Galliard in a is an early work, perhaps from the 1570s. If there is some untidyness to its overall organization, it nevertheless shows that Byrd had already found a true keyboard idiom by that time. He does not write counterpoint in consort style (that is, one could not effectively transcribe it in open score); rather, even in polyphonic sections melodies and voices enter freely, underpinned by chordal, rhythmic accompaniments. To the eye, such intabulation-style writing can appear unsatisfactory as counterpoint, but the ear readily traces the polyphonic continuities. Polyphonic sections alternate with passages of treble figuration that account for the bulk of the work’s expressive power. In later pieces, Byrd found ways to integrate figuration and polyphony; the fact that these two textures/techniques remain separate in this work may suggest why it was not included in My Ladye Nevells Book.

The Pavan and Galliard: Ph. Tregian is named for Philippa Tregian, a daughter of Francis Tregian Sr. (c. 1547–1608). Tregian Sr. was convicted of recusant crimes in 1579, deprived of his lands, and held in Fleet Prison for over 20 years. Like most well-to-do Catholic convicts, he lived comfortably and maintained contact with the outside world. His wife and children were allowed to live with him and to move freely in and out of prison. His son Francis Tregian Jr. (c. 1574–1617) was an important music copyist, whose work includes the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, copied substantially in prison between 1614 and 1617. Byrd, a fellow recusant, knew the Tregians and indeed was one of Tregian Jr.’s sources for music. The pavan and galliard for Philippa appears in Fitzwilliam, and it appears to be one of Byrd’s last keyboard compositions. The first strain begins tunefully and openly; the second is more introverted, restricted in its range and melodic gesture. The third strain is a victory: it begins right away with energy as syncopes accompany a climbing scale motive in slower notes. As the climbing motives reach their summit at the top of the range of the instrument (f”), Byrd allows the contrapuntal interplay to dissolve triumphantly into homophony, the two “choirs” of the hands calling to each other in warm sonorities. Throughout, Byrd restricts himself to the traditional keyboard range (F–f”), reserving the extended range (down to C) that was available to him after about 1600 for the dramatic peroration of the pavan. The galliard retraces this rhetorical trajectory; its third strain recalls the climactic homophony of the pavan by being based on the strumming of warm, vigorous chords. This pavan and galliard pair is actually Byrd’s parody of an inferior pair by Morley. In his later years, Byrd frequently drew upon the works of his younger contemporaries and students, invariably improving them, or at least drawing out latent ideas and beauties. Was this a way of proving to himself or them that he could keep up with the latest styles? Who was learning from whom?

In 1061 in the village of Walsingham in Norfolk, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Lady Richeldis de Faverches. Lady Richeldis was given a vision of the house in Nazareth wherein the Annunciation had occurred, and was instructed to build an imitation. The “Holy House” of Walsingham became a pilgrimage site and Our Lady of Walsingham was widely venerated. In 1513, Erasmus visited and described the Holy House: “When you look in you would say it is the abode of saints, so brilliantly does it shine with gems, gold and silver. Our Lady stands in the dark at the right side of the altar, a little image, remarkable neither for its size, material or workmanship.” Catherine of Aragon was a patron and regular pilgrim, a fact that cannot ultimately have weighed in its favor. In 1538, the priory was dissolved, the buildings looted and burned, and the Lady statue taken to London and burned. The fact that the monks of Walsingham priory were notorious for their scandalous living can hardly justify the brutality with which the continued devotion of ordinary people to Our Lady of Walsingham was punished by the Crown. No clearer nor more poignant explanation than the ballad itself can be given for what Walsingham might have meant for Byrd or other recusants.

In the wracks of Walsingham
Whom should I choose,
But the Queen of Walsingham
To be guide to my muse?
Then, thou Prince of Walsingham,
Grant me to frame
Bitter plaints to rue thy wrong,
Bitter woe for thy name.
Bitter was it so to see
The seely sheep
Murdered by the ravening wolves
While the shepherds did sleep.
Bitter was it, O, to view
The sacred vine
(Whilst the gardeners played all close)
rooted up by the swine.
Bitter, bitter, O, to behold
The grass to grow
Where the walls of Walsingham
So stately did show.
Such were the worth of Walsingham
While she did stand;
Such are the wracks as now do show
Of that so holy land.
Level, level with the ground
The towers do lie,
Which with their golden glittering tops
Pierced once to the sky.
Where were gates no gates are now,—
The ways unknown
Where the press of peers did pass
While her fame far was blown.
Owls do scrike where the sweetest hymns
Lately were sung;
Toads and serpents hold their dens
Where the palmers did throng.
Weep, weep, O Walsingham,
Whose days are nights,
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.
Sin is where our Lady sat;
Heaven turned is to hell.
Satan sits where our Lord did sway;
Walsingham, O, farewell.

On 25 March 1563, Byrd was appointed “joker of the organs” (joculator organorum) at Lincoln Cathedral. To be eligible, Byrd would have had to swear the Oath of Supremacy. It is frequently overlooked that Byrd in fact came from a Protestant family, and there is even a composition from the 1560s attributed to “Birde” that sets an English version of the well-known Lutheran prayer: “from Turk and Pope defend us, Lord.” In 1568 Byrd married Julian Burley, a stubborn and unabashed Catholic; perhaps she was one of the movers behind Byrd’s increasingly Catholic convictions. The archdeacon and the dean of the cathedral were staunch reformers, and they objected to Byrd’s elaborate organ playing. In 1569 his salary was suspended, and was told to “play the organ only for the guidance of the choir” (tantummodo ad regimen chori…organa modulabitur). Another restriction— tempore psallendi le anthem una cum choro psallens idem—is ambiguous: it may instruct Byrd to accompany the anthem colla parte, without flourishes, or it may require him not to play at all and instead to sing with the choir for the anthem. Whatever the case, such restrictions would have chaffed, and animus toward the reform-minded authorities who imposed them could have been another factor pushing Byrd toward Catholicism during his tenure Lincoln. The feud with these authorities lasted and indeed grew: in 1577 the former archdeacon, by then Bishop of London, was the first to cite Byrd for recusancy.

Clarifica me, Pater (Enlighten me, Father) is a three-part setting of a Sarum antiphon. It may be well be Byrd’s earliest surviving work in any genre. It is catalogued as three separate compositions in all the major scholarly treatments, but it is really a single setting in three sections: the outer sections are on D and the middle section is on A, and subsequent sections are in two, three, and then four parts. The antiphon in question is for first vespers of Palm Sunday in the Sarum rite, when the organ was not played, so the piece has no liturgical function. Instead—like the better known “Miserere,” “In nomine,” and “Gloria tibi Trinitas” cantus firmi—the antiphon simply provides a cogent tonal framework. Ordinarily, plainsong settings are two- or three-minute pieces; the three-section plan with a middle section in the dominant shows Byrd stretching for a larger form. The first two sections are firmly rooted in the medieval tradition of “breaking the plainsong,” in which florid counterpoint is woven against a cantus firmus in increasingly complex mensurations. Gloria tibi Trinitas (Glory to thee, Trinity), on a more well-known cantus firmus, is an interesting demonstration of a trick of learned counterpoint that was becoming rare by Byrd’s time: a horizontally shifting canon, in which the two parts combine at various time delays. Even though these pieces cannot have been used in the liturgy, they may give some indication of the kind of music that raised the hackles of the Lincoln authorities.

The intabulations of Dowland’s Lachrymae Pavan and Harding’s Galliard belong together: the pavan is pitched a fourth higher than the original to bring it to the same key as the galliard, and the two appear together in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Whereas in Byrd’s own galliards the rhythmic activity tends to be more even—not to say plain or square—in Harding’s the figuration lurches forward and back, rendering the underlying dance rhythm in an altogether different way than is usual for Byrd. The affinity with the “Lachrymae” tune are clearest in the third strain, although whether this was a deliberate paraphrase by Harding or Byrd’s Bloomian misreading is unclear. In the pavan, Byrd’s sympathy for Dowland’s popular song is unmistakable. The figurative flourishes are expressive and vocal, and the contrapuntal elaborations pay homage to the original by finding new beauties in it. By comparison with Byrd’s setting, Melchior Schildt’s is turgid, Sweelinck’s is cold, and Farnaby’s is mechanical.

Callino Casturame was a popular love song, but the title is an enigma. What does it mean, and what language is it? Scholarly consensus is that it is some form of currupt Irish Gaelic. The words were a mystery in the sixteenth century too, as a comic episode in Shakespeare’s Henry V shows. In Act 4, Scene 4, an English soldier, Pistol, addresses a Frenchman on the battlefield:

Pistol: Yield, cur.
Frenchman: Je pense que vous êtes gentilhomme de bonne qualité.
Pistol: Qualtitie calmie casture me! Art thou a gentleman? What is thy name? Discuss.
Frenchman: Ô Seigneur Dieu!
Pistol: O Seigneur Dew should be a gentleman. Perpend my words, O Seigneur Dew, and mark: O Seigneur Dew, thou diest on point of fox, except, O Seigneur, thou do give me egregious ransom.

The Carman’s Whistle begins with what must have struck Byrd as he heard the whistle from his window: a demonstration that the two halves of the scale are exact transpositions of each other. The material is such that Byrd does not always have to state the theme explicitly for it to come through clearly. It is an informal piece, and moreover because the material is so bare Byrd is less concerned than usual to pursue a single vein in each variation. Instead, each is firmly characterized at the outset and then allowed to wander. Overall the music is cheery, but the 6-5 progressions of the ‘minor’ variations bring an unexpected earnest melancholy to the work.

The Voluntarie: for my Ladye Nevell is a grand piece that closes the first main section of My Ladye Nevells Book. It is loosely composed, and one could imagine that it reflects Byrd’s improvisatory practice. After a short introductory intonation, the piece procedes vaguely along a pavan plan—three sections each in two halves. The opening contrapuntal section has two main points; the middle section treats its points more homophonically and antiphonally. The third section is a loose series of figurations over a sequential harmonic progression, a procedure that is typical in the last section of keyboard fantasias from 1500 to 1700. The coda is a stock one for Byrd, and it appears in several other compositions.

The Quadran Pavan and Galliard is Byrd’s longest keyboard work, and it is undoubtedly his greatest. It is not in My Ladye Nevells Book, a circumstance that must mean he had not composed it before 1591. Its basis is the passamezzo moderno (I–IV–I–V | I–IV–I-V–I), the progression that Peter van der Merwe and others have argued is origin of the twelve-bar blues. The ground-bass framework supports an expanded four-stanza form, each stanza encompassing a weighty eight 4-bar periods, so that the pavan and galliard each stretch to 32x2x4. The immensity of the work is felt from the very beginning: it begins as an oceangoing ship leaves its port—churning slowly, seeming not to move at all at first, but inexorably gaining momentum that soon becomes overwhelming power. The language is doggedly polyphonic, even when obligatory flourishes enter to punctuate the unfolding large form. The tight opening exposition over a tonic pedal (the first chord of the ground stretched out over four bars) contrasts with the florid counterpoint at the core of the work. There, Byrd dares to write the most audacious dissonances, yet remains totally in control of texture and polyphony. A hint of what is to come appears at the end of the first stanza, but nothing can prepare us for the fireworks of the climax.

This rich and idiosyncratic language seems to refer to the florid style of early Tudor polyphony that before the Reformation had so delighted in thick textures, rhythmic variation, and above all cross relations. The style is perhaps most familiar from the Eton choirbook composers, such as William Cornysh and Robert Fayrfax. Erasmus, who was frequently in England between 1499 and 1517, described the style unsympathetically as “a somewhat laborous and theatrical music…a tumultuous, most elaborate chattering of diverse voices” (operam quandam ac theatricam musicam…tumultuosum modulatissimum diuersarum uocum garritum). Indeed, the reformers of the 1530s turned to Erasmus’s diatribes on the perceived excesses of this style to justify the disbanding of choirs and smashing of organs. A variation ground, a pavan and galliard, a fantasia, an evocation of the musical soundscape of pre-Reformation England—remarkably, the Quadran is all of these; in one monumental work Byrd synthesizes the whole of his keyboard art and suffuses it with a statement of his religious politics.