Byrd watching


kerry-mccarthy-byrd-book-cover.200.304.sKerry McCarthy has been fascinated by William Byrd, the foremost composer of the English Renaissance, ever since she was a freshman at Reed College.  As I wrote in 2005:

…she sat in a café and read through Byrd’s Corpus Christi mass, preparing for a choral performance. At the time, she was a history major with scant musical training, but going through that score was like entering another world. “I was absolutely knocked over by it,” says McCarthy. “This was some of the most beautiful stuff I ever heard—I didn’t yet realize this was one jewel in a whole structure. I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday.” Byrd has been her passion ever since.

She switched to a music major, and eventually got her PhD at Stanford.  Now she’s a professor at Duke University.

I’ve been thrilled that she’s has been working on a biography of the composer, and I have tried to be generally encouraging – as much as you can be from several thousand miles away – but her project wasn’t entirely real to me until she pressed the finished book into my hands a few weeks ago. Kerry’s Byrd has finally been published by Oxford University Press.  The writing is accessible, engaging, elegant, and Byrd’s story is compelling.  (I tell a shortened version of the composer’s backstory here.)

From Kerry’s preface:

“Byrd’s career lasted nearly six decades, and more than five hundred pieces by him have survived. He wrote in almost every genre of his day: Latin masses and motets, English sacred music, accompanied and unaccompanied secular songs, and a wide variety of music for keyboard and strings.  If every note of his vocal music had been lost, he would still be considered a first-rate composer on the strength of his instrumental works alone. His musical life reflected many of the cultural conflicts and paradoxes of the English Renaissance.  He was a Catholic dissident who thrived in a Protestant nation, acting as a revered court composer in public and producing clandestine Catholic services in private.  Although Byrd is often at his most attractive as a marginalized figure, it is also not important to lose sight of how deeply he was involved with the Elizabethan establishment.  He was as well known in his day as any court poet or playwright, and just as close to the centers of power.”


Not a fun guy, in 1540

Byrd was born in unpleasant times – but an era that nevertheless held unusual promise for a young musician, if you could cut it.  Kerry writes:

“Byrd’s life began at an unusually volatile moment in English history. 1540 was the year the workshop of Hans Holbein produced the iconic “Rome portrait” of the forty-nine-year-old Henry VIII, glowering at the viewer with fists clenched, the massive canvas barely able to contain his bulk. The ‘young, lusty, and courageous prince’ of his early reign had given way to the capricious tyrant. During this single year, King Henry met, married, and divorced his fourth wife, executed the man who had arranged the marriage, and, on the day of the execution, married for the fifth time. He continued to build up his own musical establishment, often at great expense. In 1540 he brought in the ‘King’s new viols,’ a full consort of virtuoso southern European string players who would change the character of English instrumental music within a generation.  This was also the year he finished dismantling the monasteries and convents – an act that, more than any other, marked the real end of medieval England. The very last to surrender, in March 1540, was Waltham Abbey, a large Augustinian foundation north of London.  The royal commission removed the monks and dispersed the lay staff, including a young organist named Thomas Tallis, who left with a pension of 20 and a fifteenth-century manuscript textbook of music theory.”


Byrd watcher

Byrd is a tight 282 pages, and should be of general interest.  I’m an avid reader of 16th century English history, however, and I have a motive of my own in thinking so: I think the great Elizabethan P.R. machine is breaking down after 500 years, and innovative scholars might have some new insights into a complex era – insights not just for music scholars, but for everyone.

According to music scholar John Milsom: “Kerry McCarthy’s terse and incisive biography of Byrd rightly places the music at center stage; Byrd was, after all, a true master musician who achieved excellence in all that he wrote, whether for consort, keyboard or choir. But her study also penetrates deep into Byrd’s mind, and in turn into Byrd’s world, a place filled with pressing issues of religion, politics and nationhood. The outcome is a vivid portrait of a complex Tudor genius who stares out at us with eyes nourished by intellect, competition, loyalty, stubbornness, faction, nostalgia, and above all faith.”


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2 Responses to “Byrd watching”

  1. Helen Pinkerton Says:

    Dear Cynthia,

    Terrific review of McCarthy’s important new book on Byrd. Just what we need.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Hello Helen! Good to see you here!