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William Byrd (1540-1623)

William Byrd’s Latin Church Music, Edmund H Fellowes, 1923

This extract is from  William Byrd A Short Account of his Life and Work by Edmund H Fellowes, 1923.  The illustration is a portrait of William Byrd (1540-1623) by Vangergucht (possibly Michael van der Gucht).                                 



By common agreement Byrd reached his highest level in the music which he wrote for the Latin rites of the Church.  His work in this branch of composition is characterized by a rare dignity of expression, and above all things he displayed a wonderful power for devising the exact musical phrase to suit the words of each sentence.  The composer himself knew that the basic test of good vocal music was that it should be framed to the life of the words; and we have evidence that he was conscious of his own superlative gifts in this supremely important matter, although with admirable modesty he attributed his success to the power of the words, rather than to his own ability to conceive the right musical phrase to express the words.  Thus, in a Latin address to his patron, Lord Northampton, he commented on “the beauty of the words themselves”, and then proceeded to say “there is a certain hidden power, as I learnt by experience, in the thoughts underlying the words themselves; so that, as one meditates upon the sacred words and constantly and seriously considers them, the right notes, in some inexplicable manner, suggest themselves quite spontaneously”.

Another noticeable feature in Byrd’s Latin Church Music is the largeness of the outline of his musical phrases, and this in spite of the fact that the practice of setting single syllables to very long phrases of music, which had prevailed in the earlier part of the sixteenth century, had been abandoned before Byrd’s time.  Over and over again these splendid broad phrases are to be seen, if the eye is not balked by the too lavish use of the bar-line in modern vocal scores of this music.  One more general point should be mentioned; Byrd’s underlaying of the words is characteristically English.  The rules laid down by Zarlino in this matter in the sixteenth century are of very little, if any, use in reference to Byrd’s music.  Many of the principles followed by Byrd as regards the underlaying of Latin words are the same as those which he employed when setting English words; and in this latter department he probably did more than any other of the Elizabethans to establish a method which remained in vogue until almost the middle of the seventeenth century.

One particular feature as regards underlaying the words in the work of Byrd, and of the English School in general at the close of the sixteenth century, was the practice of tying the notes over the strong rhythmic points of the music.  By this device a heavy consonant was often neatly diverted from the strong musical beat with great advantage to the phrasing both of the words and the music.  Thus it was almost an invariable convention to tie the half note that followed a dot of augmentation to the third note of the group.    Frequently small and unimportant syllables were laid under a musical phrase consisting of several notes, with the object of giving additional value to the accented word or syllable when the strong rhythmic point was reached in the music.  Conventions such as these ceased to be understood when mensurable music came to be so rigidly regularized a hundred years later, and it is unfortunate that they were so generally misinterpreted in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  If the original underlaying of the words is modernized by editorial handling, and the composer s free rhythms are cut into square and regular shapes, much of Byrd’s music is at once rendered commonplace.

Brief reference should here be made to certain peculiarities of technique in Byrd’s writing, examples of which occur in his Latin motets as well as in his madrigals and other English work.  The most striking of these peculiarities is his use of certain dissonances, such as the simultaneous employment of the major and minor third.  This subject was discussed in some detail in the author’s English Madrigal Composers in the chapter on Byrd, and little need be repeated here.  It has been said that Byrd was the first composer to introduce dissonances of this kind, but that is not wholly accurate.  Nevertheless he himself recognized their novel character and was conscious that those who performed his music might consider such dissonances strange and unexpected, and might therefore question the accuracy of his text.  So he issued a general warning in the “Epistle to the Reader” at the beginning of his Psalmes, Sonets, and Songs in 1588 in the following terms: “In the expressing of these songs, either by voices or Instruments, if there happen to be any jarred or dissonance, blame not the Printer who (I doe assure thee)…doth here deliver to thee a perfect and true Coppie”

Fellowes, Edmund H., William Byrd A Short Account of his Life and Work, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923,Ch. II, pp.27-30.