William Byrd (ca. 1537 - 1623) was honored by his contemporaries with the title "Britanniae Musicae Parens" ("the father of British music"), and was to become the last of the great Catholic church composers of the sixteenth century -- an achievement all the more remarkable given that he lived throughout one the most turbulent periods of the English Reformation. The son of Thomas Byrd, "Gentleman of the Chapel Royal," he studied music as a boy, probably under Thomas Tallis. Byrd was appointed organist of Lincoln Cathedral in 1563 and acceded to the Chapel Royal a decade later, becoming joint organist with Tallis himself. Byrd remained a fervent Roman Catholic throughout his life.
Byrd and Tallis secured exclusive rights to publish and print music, and in 1575 they jointly issued a collection entitled Cantiones Sacrae, which included 17 motets by each composer. The enterprise proved to be financially disastrous, and in later life Byrd became increasingly entrenched in his uncompromising religious views. On several occasions both he and his wife were fined for recusancy, having resisted attendance at Church of England services.
Byrd's prolific output includes English polyphonic songs, keyboard works, and music written for the Anglican Church. Without question, however, his finest vocal compositions are his Latin masses and motets. Given the religious climate in England at the time, it is hardly surprising that Byrd wrote only three Masses, for three, four, and five voices respectively; together they represent the finest works of their type and immediate period produced by any Catholic composer. Byrd presumably intended his earlier motets to be heard only at private religious gatherings, but his two books of Gradualia, of 1605 and 1607, were explicitly designed for liturgical use. They carry the name of the composer on every single page although their publication was against the law. The preface to the first volume attests movingly to the power that scriptural texts exerted over him. Byrd wrote, "I have found there is such a power hidden away and stored up in those words of Scripture that -- I know not how -- to one who meditates upon divine things, pondering them with detailed concentration, all the most fitting melodies come as it were of themselves, and freely present themselves when the mind is alert and eager."
Byrd's most substantial work for the Anglican Church, his Great Service, was scored for a ten-part choir, divided into two subsidiary groups. Constantly aware of the spatial acoustic properties of church buildings, Byrd employed this large group not principally for volume or declamatory effect, but to facilitate a rich variety of polyphonic vocal textures and sonorities. Equally important as a composer of secular music, William Byrd also revolutionized keyboard music of his day, in collections such as My Lady Nevell's Virginal Book and the "Fitzwilliam" Virginal Book, the latter including several ingenious and elaborate transformations of banal popular melodies into variation form.