Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Reviewed by Katherine Butler

Kerry McCarthy, Byrd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). ISBN: 978-0-19-538875-6, 282 pp. + xvi. £25.99.

[1] KBWilliam Byrd (c.1540-1623) has become a central figure in our understanding of Elizabethan musical culture. His extant music includes significant examples of all the major vocal and instrumental genres of his day: from Latin motets and Catholic masses to Protestant services and anthems, and from consort songs and madrigals to viol fantasias, keyboard dances, and more. The printing patent granted to him (jointly with Thomas Tallis) by Queen Elizabeth I gave him a vital role in the development of polyphonic music printing in England. Yet our fascination with Byrd stems not only from his compositional activities, but also from the complex entanglements of his life and music with the politics and religious tensions of the period. Indeed his position as both a Gentleman the Chapel Royal held in high royal regard and a conspicuous recusant Catholic has been credited with inspiring the expressive poignancy of his most enduring music. He has been a controversial figure, variously regarded over the decades as a mainstay of early Anglican Church music, a defiant spokesperson for the Catholic oppressed, and even a traitor.

[2] Kerry McCarthy avoids such polarised positions in her new biography. While Byrd’s religious convictions remain central to her understanding of much of his musical output, she portrays him not as a rebel or outsider, but as someone intimately connected with the political establishment, protected by the Queen and patronised by the most powerful courtiers and noblemen of the era. The book’s cover image – a portrait of negotiations for a peace treaty (the Somerset House Conference) in 1604 – makes this point: Byrd had connections with every one of the powerful men in the English delegation, and indirect links on the Flemish and Spanish side too. Moreover, McCarthy argues that these close courtly connections continued even in the latter decades of his life, as he moved away from London to Stondon Massey in rural Essex and became more intimately involved with East Anglian Catholic community (including the Paston and Petre families). He was still composing his Great Service and at least some anthems for the court, despite turning his attentions to the Catholic liturgy with his masses and Gradualia. Byrd emerges as a well-connected courtier, as much as a musician and Catholic.

[3] One of the challenges of writing a biography of any Renaissance composer is the scant information regarding the years before they gained a significant post and became well established at the height of the profession. While we have a rough idea of the year of Byrd’s birth and know a fair amount about his family, nothing is known about his musical training, and we can only speculate as to whether his earliest known position at Lincoln cathedral was his first employment. Rather than simply ignore Byrd’s developmental years, McCarthy takes a contextual approach, considering the types of institution in which he is most likely to have trained and the kind of education provided there. As Byrd’s training took place during the turbulent religious changes of the mid-sixteenth century, these also provide a backdrop (and often a means of dating) for Byrd’s earliest works and musical experiences. Changes in the role of music in worship, the styles considered suitable and the resources devoted to its performance all shaped the young composer.

[4] Such contextualisation is central to McCarthy’s approach and results in an especially rich biographical narrative. The following chapters interleave key events in Byrd’s life with evocative and insightful explorations of his musical compositions, all in relation to the political and religious life of both the court and his Catholic patrons. It is no easy to task to meaningfully connect a composer’s life and works, especially when few sixteenth-century pieces are securely or precisely dateable. Nevertheless McCarthy’s musical discussions permeate the chronological narrative, while other chapters break out to explore particular genres such as sacred or secular song in more depth, as well as aspects of Byrd’s somewhat surprising reading habits.

[5] The ‘Afterthoughts’ chapter highlights some of the tensions of writing a biography for a ‘Master Musicians’ series in an era where the notion of a canon of genius composers has been challenged. While Byrd was unquestionably among the most highly respected musicians of his day, he has dominated scholarly attention to a degree that can obscure the broader picture. McCarthy’s book is one of a growing line of Byrd biographies and musical studies, while other significant contemporaries have yet to receive their first (for example Christopher Tye or John Sheppard; even Byrd’s own teacher Thomas Tallis has just a single book dedicated to his life and works). McCarthy’s book makes little attempt to engage critically with Byrd’s exalted position in modern scholarship, but in this final chapter she is aware of the potential trap of ‘hero-worship’. Here she reviews the less appealing aspects of Byrd’s character: stubbornness, a capacity to hold a grudge and the disputes and petty rivalries that pepper the extant sources from his earliest employment at Lincoln cathedral to his legal wranglings and ruthlessness as landlord of Stondon Place in his later years. This chapter offers a valuable and measured reflection on the man behind the musician, even if the combination of volatile personality and musical talent that emerges perhaps conforms suspiciously to our inherited Romantic notions of the irascible musical genius.

[6] Kerry McCarthy is a leading Byrd scholar and this book draws on her wealth of knowledge and personal research, even as it aims to engage with the student, the music lover and the non-musicologist. The style is engaging and McCarthy’s admiration for the composer and passion for Byrd’s music is infectiously communicated. Indeed her evocative prose leaves one wanting to hear the music. While it is true that few academic books come with accompanying CDs or links to musical tracks online, for a book aiming to bring Byrd to non-specialist audiences I think this would be a useful addition. Nevertheless, the book is a highly enjoyable read which one could pick up simply for pleasure and interest. This readability is what separates McCarthy’s Byrd from the densely written and meticulously footnoted approach of other recent studies of the composer. It is a brilliant introduction for the student, music lover, or reader with a general interest. When it leaves you wanting to know more, the appended ‘Reader’s Guide to Byrd Literature’ offers the means to take this reading further and the ‘List of Works’ offers an invaluable guide to tracking down editions of Byrd’s music. The appendix of ‘Personalia’ also assists with keeping track of the key patrons, relatives, scribes, printers, fellow musicians, Jesuits priests and other contacts of Byrd.

[7] As a starting point for research, however, the lack of footnotes will be frustrating as one cannot easily follow up the sources for debates and information that catch one’s interest. The ‘Documents of Byrd’s Life’ appendix provides a helpful overview of the known facts, but will not assist the researcher in finding any of sources for consultation, while consulting the ‘Reader’s Guide’ will still leave the scholar much work to do in tracking down that particular pertinent point (a search which may in case be unfruitful if it is an item of McCarthy’s own, previously unpublished research).

[8] This, however, is to judge the book against criteria beyond its stated purpose and audience. McCarthy’s Byrd is a richly rewarding read that comes highly recommended, particularly to amateur musicians, students or scholars in other disciplines interested to find out more about the music of the English Renaissance and its most iconic composer.

University of Oxford, September 2015

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