Toronto Chamber Choir Blog

October 16, 2023
Author: David W. Barber

A bit more about Byrd

This excerpt is the chapter on William Byrd from TCC tenor David Barber's book Bach, Beethoven and the Boys: Music History As It Ought To Be Taught. The illustration of Elizabeth I is also from this book, by cartoonist Dave Donald.


WILLIAM BYRD (ca.1540-1623) was an Elizabethan and as such not only had difficulty with spelling, but also had a tendency to put Capitals in the Oddest of Places. (Any spelling errors that occur within quotation marks are not the mistake of the present author, but are the result of diligent plagiarism.) The capital of England, however, was still London, where Byrd spent a great deal of time.

Of Byrd's parents nothing is known, although it is reasonable to assume he had the requisite number, one of each. The latest research says he was likely born in London but later spent some time in Lincolnshire, where it is possible his father was the original Lincolnshire Poacher. (Not eggs: game.) Since Byrd was appointed organist to Lincoln Cathedral at the age of 20, we must assume he had some previous musical training. Otherwise he couldn't have lasted as long as he did, which was about 10 years. (Or perhaps the entire congregation was tone deaf, which has been known to happen.)

After that, Byrd went back to London and became a countertenor Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. (Which was, in fact, the Royal Chapel.) In addition, he and another composer, his teacher Thomas Tallis (sorry, but we really haven't time to talk more about him), were granted by Queen Elizabeth a monopoly on music publishing. This gave them exclusive right to print any music "either plaid or soonge," in any language whatsoever. Whether this right extended to include music that was striped or polka-dotted, as well as plaid, musicologists can only assume.

Not only were Tallis and Byrd the only ones allowed to print music, they were also the only ones allowed to print the ruled paper upon which music is composed. They had, in other words, cornered the market. Modern-day composers who are finding it difficult to have their work published would do well to keep this tactic in mind.

Elizabeth was fond of music: One biographer of her time said, "She sings quite exceptionally both with voice and hand." It must have been sign language.

It must have been sign language.


Some of the music Byrd wrote was intended to be performed at home, by people looking for something to do after dinner. Charades hadn’t been invented yet. And even if there had been television there wouldn't have been anything worth watching except maybe a re-enactment of the Wars of the Roses, an early forerunner of the modern Rose Bowl. In the case of madrigals, each part was printed separately, or at clockwise angles on a single sheet, so everyone could sit around a table and sing. When they got tired of that, they could play bridge. Since only the very clever host could be counted upon always to invite the right number of voice parts to a dinner party, the music was often designed to be suited to either "voyces or viols." (Or sometimes "voices or vyols," or often vile voices.) That way, any number of vocal lines could be played by a stringed instrument, although it was sometimes difficult to understand the words. If everyone played and no one sang, it became impossible.

Madrigal singing had become increasingly popular in England ever since the publication in 1588 of a set of madrigals, largely of Italian origin (written by large Italians, or by Italians in large print) called Musica Transalpina. I take the time to mention this interesting fact only because no history of English Renaissance music would be complete without it, and it’s likely to turn up on the exam. (Hadn't I warned you there was going to be an exam?)

Most of Byrd's music was written to be performed in the context of a church service (for either church – Byrd wasn't choosy), so most of it is vocal music. Someone had come up with the devious observation that the more the choir sang, the less the clergy preached. This was considered to have been a good thing for everyone, except perhaps the clergy. Byrd felt that singing was good for everyone, since it "doth open the pipes." He doesn't say which pipes.

Although Byrd is chiefly known for his sacred music, it ought to be remembered that he also wrote the risqué little madrigal Suzanna Fayre Sometime Assaulted Was by Two Old Men Desiring of Her Cause, which alas is about exactly what you think it is. By the time you've sung the title, it's half over. (Actually, even that story is biblical: Daniel 13 in some versions, or you can find it in the Apocrypha.) Even though one of the chief characteristics of a madrigal is its ability to use music to paint a clear picture of the words, this one is not, perhaps luckily, a very good example of that.


TCC tenor David Barber is the internationally bestselling author of several humorous books of classical music history and has sung with TCC for more than two decades. His latest book is the mystery novel Hedshot, from Indent Publishing.


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