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Image ©Jan Robert Dünnweller/New York Times

William Byrd

A Homily by Mgr. Philip Whitmore at Westminster Cathedral, July 4, 2023

At the time of Byrd’s death, 400 years ago today, it would have been hard to imagine his music being performed so frequently at the principal Cathedral of the land. As we give thanks for his wonderful legacy and as we pray for the repose of his soul, we might well reflect what joy it would have brought to his heart to see and hear what is happening here this evening  

William Byrd would have been barely 7 years old when Henry VIII died. His formative years saw great religious upheavals in England, from the stripping of altars under Edward VI, to the return of Catholicism under Mary Tudor, and finally the Elizabethan settlement, just as Byrd was reaching adulthood. Indeed, Byrd’s first salaried post, as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, came in 1563, early in Elizabeth’s reign. For a church musician, there was no getting away from the complex variations in the religious climate of the time. If his paymasters were Anglican, then it would be Anglican church music he wrote, even if his personal convictions were Catholic, as in Byrd’s own case. After not quite ten years in Lincoln, Byrd returned to London, as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Here he had some opportunity to write Latin church music, as Queen Elizabeth was an accomplished Latinist and she was comfortable with Latin in the liturgy, at least in her private chapel. The last thirty years of Byrd’s long life, though, were spent in retirement at Stondon Massey in Essex, where his friendship with Lord Petre of nearby Ingatestone Hall provided opportunities for writing a great deal of music for the clandestine Catholic liturgy.

Not every biographer is as interested in the religious profile of the subject as I expect we are, and much of the biographical literature about William Byrd seems to focus instead on his constant litigation, usually related to property. There’s also plenty of material about his family One of seven children himself, he married while living in Lincoln and had five or six children of his own. I’m always fascinated to know what makes people become Catholic in incredibly difficult circumstances, such as those of Byrd’s adult life, when Catholic worship was outlawed. Early influences are sure to have played an important part, and Byrd certainly worked alongside the older English composer Thomas Tallis, himself a Catholic. Be that as it may, there’s no evidence that any of his siblings were Catholic, although his wife Juliana and their children certainly were:  in fact, they were frequently fined for failure to attend worship in the established church.


One of their children, Thomas Byrd, spent some time as a seminarian at the English College in Valladolid, although he didn’t proceed to ordination. Another son married a great-granddaughter of St Thomas More. And Byrd was certainly connected to high-ranking Catholics, such as Lord Petre and Edward Somerset, Earl of Worcester. Queen Elizabeth seems to have been fairly relaxed about having Catholics in her entourage if she was confident of their loyalty to her. She certainly valued William Byrd and there’s even some evidence that she provided him with an allowance to help defray the cost of the recusancy fines!


It’s tantalizing that a lot of the evidence we would like to find of Byrd’s Catholic life is hard to come by, as Catholics at that time had to be careful to cover their tracks. It’s likely that he met St Edmund Campion through his contacts with the Vaux family, who sheltered Campion. It’s also likely that Campion’s brutal execution in 1581 affected Byrd deeply. St Henry Walpole, a future martyr who was present at Campion’s martyrdom, was moved by that experience to write a long poem, entitled Why do I use my paper, ink and pen? Byrd set this poem to music. This song was probably his most overt identification with the cause of the beleaguered Catholic community, although there are many more hidden references. His so-called “Jerusalem motets” make constant reference to the desolation of Jerusalem as the people of God await their deliverance. It doesn’t seem too fanciful to interpret these as coded messages for the Catholic community in England. The setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei, that we’re to hear today, could be another coded message, inasmuch as some of the martyrs were known to have recited it during their final agony.


There was less need for coded references, though, once Byrd had retired to Stondon Massey, when he wrote specifically for the Catholic liturgies celebrated at the home of his aristocratic patron. The three Mass settings – one for three voices, one for four voices, and the one we’ve been hearing at Mass today with five voices - all date from this period. Remarkably, Byrd published them, a bold step for those times, although admittedly there was no title-page on the publication. This was not long after the reform of the liturgy at the Council of Trent, and the three Mass settings were designed for the new liturgy, not for the Sarum liturgy that had been in use before. Maybe that was why Byrd was bold enough to publish them. In 1605 and 1607, he published his two collections of Gradualia, polyphonic settings of the propers needed at Mass throughout the year, no doubt written for use at Ingatestone, but offered to a wider public as well. The 1605 publication predated the Gunpowder Plot later that year. Not surprisingly, the religious climate changed somewhat in consequence of the plot, and there is at least one case of someone being arrested merely for possessing the Gradualia. Happily, though, Byrd felt bold enough to publish the second set just two years later. The Ave verum corpus, one of Byrd’s best-loved motets, to be sung at Communion this evening, comes from this collection. So does the setting of crowd-parts from the Passion according to St John, often heard here at Westminster Cathedral on Good Friday.


In the Preface to the first part of the Gradualia, Byrd wrote a particularly striking account of the process of composing these motets. He said this: “There is a certain hidden power, as I learnt by experience, in the thoughts underlying the words themselves; so that, as one meditates on the sacred words and constantly and seriously considers them, the right notes, in some inexplicable manner, suggest themselves quite spontaneously.” Not every composer has been blessed with quite that level of fluency! But it does tell us that Byrd’s music is the fruit of prayer, and it serves most effectively to nourish our own prayer as we listen to it.


After Byrd’s death, his English church music continued to be performed by Anglican choirs. His considerable corpus of secular and instrumental music likewise continued to reach a wide audience. The Catholic music, though, fell into oblivion, until its revival in the early 20th century, largely through the pioneering work of Sir Richard Terry, the first Master of Music here at Westminster Cathedral. At the time of Byrd’s death, 400 years ago today (July 4th 2023), it would have been hard to imagine his music being performed so frequently at the principal Cathedral of the land. As we give thanks for his wonderful legacy and as we pray for the repose of his soul, we might well reflect what joy it would have brought to his heart to see and hear what is happening here this evening.  


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