William Byrd and the King James Bible: He was agin’ it.


Angry? Defiant, maybe...

William Byrd was an odd fellow, and I was reminded of that over a Faculty Club lunch yesterday with the composer’s biographer, Kerry McCarthy of Duke University.  Kerry’s sabbatical peregrinations have dropped her into Palo Alto, and will soon deposit her in Cambridge, U.K., where she will be speaking about Byrd and the King James Bible, which is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year.

There’s really not too much to say about Byrd and the King James Bible, except that he appears to have been agin’ it.  In 1611, the year the King James Bible debuted, Byrd issued a book of his own compositions of music set to Scripture.  He used every translation of the Bible he could find.  Except the King James Bible.

Not my kind of guy

We can only congratulate the composer on his taste — in refusing patronage, that is.  The king made it his business to personally supervise the torture of women accused of sorcery, and launched Scotland’s first national initiative against witchcraft. And 1611 was only six short years since the Gunpowder Plot, which may have been a Jacobean sting operation.

Nonetheless, Mary Queen of Scots‘ son personally supervised the translation, borrowing heavily from William Tyndale, who deserves some of the credit. The final product became a cornerstone of the English language — one of those rare cases where a translated work becomes in itself a classic, distinct from its source. As the BBC notes of the ubiquitous translation:

Tennyson considered Bible reading “an education in itself”, while Dickens called the New Testament “the very best book that ever was or ever will be known in the world.”

The US statesman Daniel Webster said: “If there is anything in my thoughts or style to commend, the credit is due to my parents for instilling in me an early love of the Scriptures.” Equally celebrated as a British orator, TB Macaulay said that the translation demonstrated “the whole extent of [the] beauty and power” of the English language.

Kerry once described Byrd as “probably the angriest Renaissance composer I know of.”  Her opinion seems to have softened since then.  We’ll know for sure when her biography is published by Oxford University Press — in late 2012, maybe, or 2013.

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4 Responses to “William Byrd and the King James Bible: He was agin’ it.”

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  2. Andrew Smith Says:

    Thank you for an interesting insight into this rebellious recusant Catholic. I am taking particular interest in Byrd because the church where he is buried (Stondon Massey, Essex, England) is holding a ‘William Byrd Festival’ in May 2011. I have the task of putting together a Morning Prayer service on 8 May and have decided to use the Book of Common Prayer (1662), a revised version of the “original” of 1559, and the King James’ Authorised Version of the Bible for the readings – not that Byrd ever took Communion in the established church, and was frequently fined for non attendance.

    John Harley, another Byrd biographer, says that the name of Byrd’s wife, Ellen, mentioned in these presentments was probably Juliana. William Byrd seems hardly to have been a well-known neighbour in the parish, preferring to move in his own influential circle, which probably saved his life. Being a Catholic in Anglican Britain was not a good idea. As for his music (regardless of whether he used the KJV), perhaps today it is better known than ever before.

  3. David Sanford Says:

    Thanks! A big surprise tied into the 400th anniversary of the 1611 King James Version Bible:

    Two scholars have compiled the first worldwide census of extant copies of the original first printing of the 1611 King James Version (sometimes referred to as the “He” Bible). For decades, authorities from the British Museum, et al., have estimated that “around 50 copies” of that first printing still exist. The real number, however, is quite different!

    For more information, you’re invited to contact Donald L. Brake, Sr., PhD, at dbrake1611@q.com or his associate David Sanford at drsanford@earthlink.net. You’re also invited to visit the http://www.credocommunications.net/kjv website.

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