Of Byrd And Bard

This year is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd. Many musicians are celebrating this leading composer of the English Renaissance in concerts, church services, and recordings. 

Byrd’s life entirely overlapped with that of another Renaissance William – Shakespeare. Yet there is a great chasm between their posthumous reputations. Both are recognised as masters of their respective fields, and leading lights of a wider school, but only Shakespeare has become a world-famous cultural export, an ageless titan of western civilisation. Byrd, while celebrated and respected, remains more contained – a figure of his time and place.

I won’t try to argue that Byrd deserves the huge cultural profile bestowed on Shakespeare. But it is nonetheless interesting to consider what factors are at play in this discrepancy.

Principal, I think, is the fact that Shakespeare’s works are overwhelmingly secular – he is returned to again and again for his insights into our common humanity. Whereas for Byrd, it seems, sacred music is front and centre of his legacy. 

His choral works are still sung as a living part of the Cathedral tradition, and in concerts. His life story is bound up in the dangerous politics of the Reformation, within which his recusancy, and intrigues of possible Catholic messages in the music, add clandestine spice to the tale. A ‘Secret Byrd’ concert series is taking place this year, aiming to recreate some of this illicit atmosphere. The shadowy historical storytelling is both an engaging selling point for public interest, but at the same time distances him – places him as someone looking backwards to the middle ages, even while it celebrates his forward-looking music.

How can such a figure compare to Shakespeare? Music certainly formed a part of Elizabethan theatre – Byrd himself composed variations on the song ‘O Mistress Mine’ from Twelfth Night. But it took another couple of centuries of musical development before we get to the composer who is most commonly mentioned in the same breath.

Immediately after the death of Beethoven, an obituarist was making comparisons between his legacy and Shakespeare’s. Beethoven owned translations of the plays, and the Bard’s influence on him is well documented. In the two centuries since the composer’s death, this equivalence seems to have stuck. Only recently I was reading Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, which includes the character of a music teacher for whom the two artists were ‘a twin constellation outshining all else’.

You might argue that the musical practices and technologies of Byrd’s time were simply not yet sufficiently developed, in range of articulation and form, to merit the comparison to a dramatist who at least had the head-start of using the stuff of everyday life: words. Music needed time to catch up, and poor Byrd was born two hundred years too early to be on a level playing field.

Whatever the truth of the matter, in this 400th anniversary year I would love for more attention to be paid to Byrd’s secular side: his glorious instrumental music and songs. In 2021 the pianist Kit Armstrong’s released a double album of early keyboard music, contrasting Byrd with his contemporary John Bull. It’s easy to dismiss this repertoire as a kind of proto-Bach – a precursor to more elegant, finely wrought counterpoint that’s better suited to a modern piano. Interesting, but ultimately worth passing over. But Armstrong’s recording makes a different case for this music. It shows how much experimentation, cleverness and joy it holds.

Take the fantasia Ut, Mi, Re. Its childish Solmization title is deceptive. Byrd is working from a simple starting principle, but out of humble beginnings he creates a fantastically unpredictable and virtuosic piece. There are moments that seem to leap forward in time, where – dare I say it – his exuberance is not a million miles from the ebullient moods and eccentricities of Beethoven himself. 

It’s well worth reading Armstrong’s own detailed notes on how he approached this recording. We are long accustomed to modern updates and experimentations with the timeless plays of Shakespeare. My wish for 2023 is that more musicians outside of the early music specialists would explore the playful side of the other William.

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