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William Byrd's Secret Catholic Masterpieces


He was a hit-maker — Queen Elizabeth's favorite composer, highly regarded at her wealthy and powerful Court.  But in reality, William Byrd led a double life.

Elizabeth27 Modern scholars, like Duke Musicology professor Kerry Robin McCarthy, continue to unearth more details of how Byrd somehow kept his reputation, his job, his property, and his life, as both a Court composer who played Elizabeth's tune and as a heavily-fined recusant Catholic who wrote Mass music for hounded Catholic worshipers — all at the same time.  It may be safe to say that Queen Elizabeth and his other Protestant contemporaries, like many of the rest of us, simply could not resist his genius.

This article was inspired by Suzanne Duque Salvo's July 2013  article "Upper Class and Underground," in Regina Magazine.  All quotes in this article are from Professor McCarthy's 2013 biography, Byrd from The Master Musician series published by Oxford University Press.

As Duke University Music scholar Kerry McCarthy noted in her biography of William Byrd, the Catholic composer was born at "an unusually volatile moment in English history."  1540 was the year that King Henry VIII "finished dismantling the monasteries and convents."  Monastic libraries were looted and their books used for scrap paper — some of which made its way into toilets, so despised were the ancient liturgies and music of the Catholic Church.

The Latin Mass was banned altogether; replaced with a stripped-down English service.  "What had taken place daily at every pre-Reformation altar, from the humblest parish church to the greatest cathedral, was now a rare and dangerous luxury."

But a closer look at two of Byrd's works for Christmastide reveal a fascinating story.  The first is an English carol from a Byrd songbook, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I's Chancellor.  The second is a set of Propers for a Christmas Mass from a collection that Byrd published later in his life and dedicated to a Baron who secretly held prohibited Catholic Masses in his home.

William Byrd published a wide variety of music, including religious music not specifically Catholic.  Protestants allowed polyphonic settings of Psalm texts,  so most of the religious works he published were motets that set Psalm texts in Latin or English.  He also published religious songs in English.

It is clear, however, that Byrd subtly thumbed his nose at the Protestant majority by his choice of texts.  Many were about throwing off oppressors and pleading for God to rescue an (allegorical) Jerusalem.  Some were 'gallows texts' — Psalm verses that were well-known among Catholics in England's underground as the last words of martyred priests.

"Lullaby," a Christmas Carol


In 1588, Byrd published an elegant songbook, Psalms, Sonnets and Songs.  According to McCarthy, the elegance of this songbook may have been part of an attempt to reestablish his reputation at court.  "He spent most of the decade under constant suspicion of illegal Catholic activities."

Fortunately for Byrd's reputation, the 1588 songbook was a hit, and his English Christmas carol  from that songbook, "Lullaby," became an enduring favorite.  The Earl of Worcester wrote fourteen years later, in 1602,  that "we are frolic [joyful] here in court Irish tunes are at the time more pleasing, but in winter Lullaby, an old song of Mr. Byrd's, will be more in request, as I think." 

In view of his earlier thinly-disguised protests in the texts of his Psalm settings, it is tempting to see a similar vein in his Lullaby, with this line, "O woe and woeful heavy day when wretches have their will!"  and a prediction that even though the wicked king sought to kill the King (Jesus), the Son of God would reign, "whom tyrants none can kill."

Third Mass of Christmas Day, Puer Natus Est

In 1607, nineteen years after Lullaby, and about a decade after he published settings for the Ordinary of the Mass (his immortal Masses for Three, Four, and Five Voices still sung today), Byrd published his polyphonic setting of the Latin Propers for the third Mass of Christmas Day.  This Mass was published in a collection called Gradualia, along with Christmas motets.  Byrd had retired from the Royal Court to live in Essex by then, where he worshiped with, played and created sacred music for a gathering of Catholics in the home of Baron John Petre.

Byrd wrote in the dedication of his second Gradualia that the music had "proceeded from [John Petre's] house, most generous to me and mine."

Byrd managed to get the necessary printing approvals for the Gradualia from no less a personage than Richard Bancroft, the Anglican Bishop of London.  According to McCarthy, the bishop who gave the approval apparently did so because he thought the Propers would contribute to dissension in the ranks of Catholics.

Perhaps partly due to the danger of discovery that he envisioned for singers of his  propers, Byrd kept the individual propers short.  "His elegant little offertories and communions — some of them are barely a minute long — could hardly be further removed from the leisurely Latin motets."

 "When he described his settings of the Mass Proper in his 1605 preface, he called them 'notes as a garland to adorn certain holy and delightful phrases of the Christian rite.'"

In spite of all the attendant risks, Byrd increasingly used his talents to serve the Catholic liturgy while almost the entire English population abandoned the ancient Faith.  Perhaps he had his own end in mind.

In the will he signed in 1622, the year before he died, Byrd wrote this prayer, "that I may live and die a true and perfect member" of the "holy Catholic Church, without which I believe there is no salvation for me."

The Tallis Scholars sing works of William Byrd,
Music from the time of Elizabeth I

This is Meaghen Gonzalez, Editor of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Roseanne T. Sullivan. "William Byrd's Secret Catholic Masterpieces." Regina Magazine (November 19, 2013).

Regina Magazine draws together extraordinary Catholic writers with a vibrant faith, and wide-ranging interests.  We cover Catholic stories and review Catholic films and books that most publications seem to be unaware of.  And we're interested in everything under the Catholic sun — from work and family to religious and eternal life. 

We seek the Good, the Beautiful and the True — in our Tradition and with our God-given Reason.  We really do believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.  We are joyfully loyal to the Magisterium.  We proudly celebrate our literary and artistic heritage and seek to live and teach the authentic Faith.

The Author

sullivanRoseanne T. Sullivan, B.A. Studio Arts and English, M.A. English with writing emphasis,  is a writer from the Boston area who currently lives in San Jose, CA. Sullivan studied and sang Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony in liturgies for several years with the St. Ann choir along with Kerry McCarthy, a noted Byrd scholar, and under the direction of Stanford Professor and early music scholar William Mahrt.  She has participated in chant and polyphony workshops and performances at Church Music Association of American (CMAA) colloquia, and she sang for several years with the choir at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Oratory, which is dedicated to the traditional Latin rite in San Jose.

Ms. Sullivan has a deep and abiding interest in Sacred Music, Divine Liturgy, Catholic art and literature.  Her works are published regularly in The Latin Mass Journal, and Homiletic and Pastoral review, and she has published several articles in the National Catholic Register and many at Regina Magazine. She is the music blogger at the Deep Down Things blog at the Dappled Things Magazine's website.  Her own blog, Catholic Pundit Wannabe, is here.

Copyright © 2013 Regina Magazine

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