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.
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.