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. 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 is about not just Christmas Carols.
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.
by Roseanne T. Sullivan
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.
Holbein portrait of King Henry VII: “1540 [Byrd’s birth year] was the year the workshop of Hans Holbein produced the iconic ‘Rome portrait’ of the forty-nine-year-old Henry VIII, glowering at the viewer with fists clenched, the massive canvas barely able to contain his bulk.”
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.
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.
“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.“
Psalms, Sonnets and Songs (1588) title page, which reads in part “Songs very rare and newly composed are here published for the recreation of all such as delight in music, by William Byrd, one of the gentlemen of the Queen’s Majesty’s honorable Chapel. With the privilege of the royal majesty.”
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.”
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.
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 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 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.”
A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY: Portrait commonly (but mistakenly) believed to be of Byrd, according to historian Kerry McCarthy. “There is no evidence that the well-known engraved portrait of Byrd; is anything but a fanciful eighteenth-century artist’s rendition of an Elizabethan gentleman.” This engraving by Gerard van der Guch, after a drawing by Nicola Francesco Haym, c.1729, is in the British Museum.
In his 1622 will, 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.”