Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Double Life of William Byrd

I'm very pleased to offer a free download of the complete book A Byrd Celebration, edited by Richard Turbet. Herein are original essays on the life and work of this great master of polyphony written by Byrd experts, and for a volume to be distributed at the Byrd Festival in Portland, which begins August 10.

Every chapter has interesting material but I'm particularly intrigued at the stories of how this devout Catholic managed his life in Elizabethan England as a composer for the English church. Essentially he lived a double life. His Catholic music, such as his Masses, were written for private and secret use in estates far away from the state's prying eyes, even as his English music was being performed in Cathedrals.

There is even more to his double life: he was involved in smuggling and money laundering activities for Jesuit priests, activities which endangered his life.

Read this passage from Joseph Kerman:

Byrd attends a Jesuit retreat for priests who had been smuggled into the country—and I don’t think he was there simply to do the music at their undercover services; I think he was there also because he’d been involved with the smuggling operation. A servant who had been with Byrd since his Lincoln days was caught with an incriminating letter and died in prison.

Yet Byrd had powerful friends, as I’ve already indicated—including the queen herself, as we’ve already seen. Elizabeth was a devoted musician, as you probably know. She was always praised for her playing on the virginals, and the best keyboard music around for her to play was by the star of her Chapel Royal, William Byrd—the best by far, as she must have known as well as we musicologists do, five hundred years later.

Well: this is speculation, but it is a fact that Elizabeth granted Byrd some sort of liability from prosecution for recusancy. And Byrd kept his nose clean, just about, and what’s more Byrd had paid his dues, and he continued to do so. Though he evidently tacked too close to the wind in connection with the Throckmorton Plot against Elizabeth in 1583, by the time the Spanish Armada was blown away in 1588, when the queen wrote an anthem of thanks she chose Byrd to set it set to music. In these same years, we think, Byrd also produced the greatest piece of music ever written for the Anglican Rite, doubtless for Queen Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal—the Great Service, for a double five-part choir.

Byrd was living a double life. And not a few other Elizabethans were walking the same sort of tightrope. And some, like Byrd, were courting trouble by exposing their feelings in books and poems. Byrd found a way of doing this in music.

The books is available in softcover and hardcover.

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