Tuesday, July 04, 2023

The Fourth Centenary of the Death of William Byrd

Today is the 400th anniversary of the death of the English composer William Byrd. Peter’s son Julian, who is himself a musician, and very knowledgeable about sacred music, has an excellent article about him over at Catholic World Report, which I heartily recommend to our readers. He gives a good summary of Byrd’s life and career, and explains some of the features of his works in various genres: Masses, motets, his settings of various hymns and antiphons etc.

I make bold to add just one point about Byrd which is pertinent to our own times. Although the precise date of his birth is unknown, unlike his friend and collaborator Thomas Tallis (1505 ca. - 85), he was certainly born too late (ca. 1540) to have known the Catholic Church as it had been in England before the destruction visited on it by the greed and impiety of the English monarchs. In the long reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), he was often heavily fined for “recusancy”, non-attendance at the services of the new religion; some of his works are veiled responses to her intensification of the persecution of Catholics. Among his acquaintances was a priest of the Jesuit mission named Henry Garnet, who was sentenced in 1606 to be hung, drawn and quartered. In the same year that he died, the English crown prince, soon to become King Charles I, went to Spain to arrange a marriage with one of the royal infantas; this project foundered in part because Charles knew that he could not get Parliament to agree to toleration for Catholics, or to repeal England’s anti-Catholic penal laws, conditions demanded by the Spanish.
In other words, Byrd lived in very dark times for the Church indeed. This did not stop him from doing what he could for Her, placing his talents at the service of God, and creating a lasting monument that still proclaims His glory to this day. And although Catholicism in England is, of course, not free of the problems that vex the Church everywhere in our own time, it has now been free for many decades; in our still-ongoing Corpus Christi photopost series, we have seen particularly beautiful public processions in both York and London. As a Latin proverb says “Succisa virescit - being cut down, it flourishes.” Let us strive to do as Byrd did, knowing that better days are coming, later, perhaps, than we wish for, but sooner than we hope.
Here are just a few examples of Byrd’s work, selected out of his vast oeuvre with the current liturgical season in mind. 
The Mass for Five Voices
The Salve Regina
Veni, Sancte Spiritus, the Sequence of Pentecost
Cibavit Eos, the Introit of Corpus Christi
Hodie Simon Petrus, the Magnificat antiphon of Second Vespers of Ss Peter and Paul.

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