The Fascinating Mr. Byrd

Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet, two Jesuit priests, returned to England as missionaries to the underground Catholic community in Elizabeth I’s reign. In 1586, they left St. Omers in what was then Flanders on July 16 and landed at Folkestone in southeast England ten days earlier. (Catholic Europe was on the new and improved Gregorian calendar, while Anglican England was still on the ancient Julian calendar.) Their stealthy return to England was very dangerous because the Elizabethan government had just declared it an act of treason for a Catholic priest to even be in England. They eventually made their way to Hurleyford House on the border of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire where they met William Byrd.

Another Jesuit, William Weston, mentioned in his memoir that Byrd was a famous composer and musician who “had been attached to the Queen’s chapel, where he had gained a great reputation but had sacrificed everything for the faith—his position, the court, and all those aspirations common to men who seek preferment in royal circles as a means of improving their fortunes.” (Quoted in Saint Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet: A Study in Friendship by Philip Caraman, SJ; p. 21)

William Byrd was also finding it difficult—if not dangerous—to be a Catholic in England. He had been composing and performing music in the Chapel Royal for a long time. While musicians were constrained by the Calvinist requirements of Edward VI’s reign, church music had advanced in glorious polyphony during Mary I’s reign. Composers were still allowed some leeway—and some Latin—in Elizabeth’s chapel. But Byrd was tired of having to compose for the services of the Church of England and tired of fines at Court for recusancy, tired of living a double life: Anglican on the outside, Catholic on the inside. Soon after 1591, he left Court for Stondon Massey in Essex and began to write Masses for Catholics to chant in hidden chapels in houses like Hurleyford.

All this year, The Cardinall’s Musick, conducted by Andrew Carwood, will tour England to perform all of William Byrd’s Latin church music. In 2010, the group completed a project of recording all of that same music—music that in 16th century England was composed for an illegal act: the celebration of the Catholic Mass.  In 2012, their performances are designed around the liturgical year as they include the propers of the Mass (the Introit, Gradual, Text or Alleluia, Offertory and Communion texts) appropriate to the season or feast near their concerts.

The Cardinall’s Musick is the not only musical group interested in William Byrd. The Tallis Scholars, who obviously also admire the music of Byrd’s contemporary Thomas Tallis, produced a BBC special in 2006 called Playing Elizabeth’s Tune highlighting Byrd’s professional difficulties as a Catholic. Stile Antico, another a cappella Early Music group performed the Latin music of William Byrd contrasted with the English music of Thomas Tallis on their compact disc, Heavenly Harmonies. The Cantores in Ecclesia of Portland, Oregon hosts The William Byrd Festival, including lectures, liturgical services, and performances each August. Why do these groups (and others) find Byrd and his music so fascinating?

Andrew Carwood provides one great insight in a statement he made to The Tablet: “It’s like Shostakovich in Russia.” This reference to the 20th century symphonic composer who struggled with restrictions on artistic freedom in the Soviet era demonstrates the resonance of Byrd’s life and work. Sixteenth Century Elizabethan England, for all its glorious achievements in the arts, was no more free than the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Artists were not able to express what Carwood refers to as “the emotional intensity, imagination and wit of Byrd” if they were writing forbidden music. In a culture that values artistic freedom (perhaps even to excess) an artist like Shostakovich or Byrd who stands against restrictions is a hero.

Carwood again is an eloquent advocate for Byrd’s greatness as a composer, ranking him above his contemporaries Palestrina, Lassus and Victoria for his sensitivity to words, his consistently high quality, and his ambition in taking on big projects. Listening to Byrd can be a challenge for us today if we don’t know the Latin text of the Propers or the Ordinary (the parts that don’t change) of the Mass. But with the text of the Mass parts and propers in the compact disc insert, some dedicated listening will be rewarded by sometimes exultant, sometimes poignant, music. It can be most conducive to prayerful meditation, especially while reflecting on the suffering of the Church in Byrd’s era.

As for the three Jesuits gathering that July at Hurleyford House: William Weston was arrested less than a month later and imprisoned until being exiled in 1603 (he nearly went blind in the Tower of London); he died in Spain 12 years later. St. Robert Southwell was arrested in 1592, tortured for three years by Richard Topcliffe, and finally tried and executed in 1595 and his friend Henry Garnet, after succeeding Weston as Superior of the Jesuits in England, served in England throughout Elizabeth I’s reign. He was captured, tried, and executed in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot in 1606.

In his Last Will and Testament Byrd hoped “that he may live and die a true and perfect member of the Holy Catholic Church without which I believe there is no salvation for me”. He died on July 4, 1623 at Stondon Massey at age 83.

Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at Stephanie is working on a book about the English Catholic Martyrs from 1534 to 1681.

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