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William Byrd (1543–1623): A Short Biography
by Adam Bruce
Born in 1543 William Byrd was the last great English composer for catholic religious music before the protestant shift and Elizibethian age. After the shift however, he proved himself to be just as significant to the new “Golden” age of secular music, and became the first truly influential composer in the “Golden” secular age. There is little to be known about his early years, although some scholars believe he may have been a student of Thomas Tallis in London, however, the first reliable records of him document him as choirmaster and organist in the Lincoln cathedral in 1563.
In 1570 he was invited to join the Chapel Royal as a Singer, but didn’t take up his post until two years later, in the meantime receiving commissions for Anglican Church music. He was appointed organist at the Chapel Royal in 1572, remaining in service at the chapel for twenty years, and was even granted a monopoly on printing and selling music along with Thomas Tallis in 1575. In the late 1570’s however, there was a period of general persecution of the Catholic Church and those loyal to the pope in London, and Byrd had to move himself and his family to Harlington, Middlesex.
In the years to come, Byrd suffered the death of his wife, Juiliana. He married again and moved to Essex, where he spent the rest of his life until his death in 1623. During his lifetime Byrd dedicated his music to many prominent Catholics as well as Anglicans, and wrote many Anglican religious hymns and anthems. His most celebrated work however, the ave vernum corpus is a Catholic motet written for four voices. Although he most of the music he wrote was vocal, both secular and religious, there is a number of instrumental works, most of them written for the Viol, of which there are roughly 150 pieces.
Byrd’s influence on western music, due in large to his Catholic masses for three, four, and even five voices, is undoubtedly noticeable and although he died in 1623, his music was to influence future composers such as J.S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi, and is still preformed today, 385 years after his death.