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William Byrd and Thomas Weelkes: Sing we merrily unto God

13 October 2023

Four centuries after the deaths of the composers, Edward Wickham examines their legacies


Engraving of William Byrd by Niccolò Francesco Haym (1678-1729)

Engraving of William Byrd by Niccolò Francesco Haym (1678-1729)

FOR more than just the obvious reason, birthdays are preferable to death days. Birthdays contextualise; death days often do the opposite, surprising us just as we are surprised to hear that a much loved celebrity from our youth has only just departed this life. “I thought he died years ago,” we think guiltily to ourselves.

The composers Thomas Weelkes and William Byrd share the same death date of 1623 — a fact that, based on a general perception of their musical personalities, might be surprising: the former too early, the latter too late. And, while the early demise of Weelkes may be understood in the familiar context of genius laid low by drink, the longevity of Byrd invites us to examine not only his career and oeuvre, but also what he has become in our own cultural imagination.

In the case of Byrd, there is a good reason for marking 1623 rather than his birth date: we cannot be sure exactly what that birth date is. As Shakespeare scholars will attest, being great does not resolve basic ambiguities in the historical record. Whether it be 1539, 1540, or 1542, Byrd was born into an ecclesiastical culture that was fast changing, and spent his early career negotiating those same doctrinal vicissitudes as his mentor, Thomas Tallis, did.

Byrd was thus a product of the Reformation; and the challenge of reconciling devotion to old liturgical forms and dogmas with new aesthetic and theological sensibilities shaped a large part of his work. Creatively, he was up to the challenge, but also temperamentally. He could argue with anyone, be they prelate or pauper, and was known as well for his fierce intransigence in matters of the law as he was for virtuoso composition.

What is intransigence to some is to others resolve. And it is as the resolute Roman Catholic, providing liturgical music for the recusant communities worshipping secretly during the reign of Elizabeth I, that Byrd is today most commonly idolised. The Latin masses and many of those motets that are now frequently — even routinely — performed by cathedral choirs and professional consorts in generous architectural acoustics were intended for the secret domestic devotions of recusant households.

It is impossible to imagine what such an occasion might have felt like, except that they would have been very different from the performance contexts of today: the singers themselves the principal worshippers, reading from music that provided only their own voice part, in an act of intense, communal creativity. Nowadays, recreating the Elizabethan mind-set through film, historical novels, and florid concert programme notes, we are encouraged to hear, in the poignant, piercing suspensions that bring to a climax the Mass for Four Voices, the cry of an anguished, alienated soul.

But this is only half the story. For all that we wish Byrd’s Latin sacred music to reveal secret messages about the persecuted artist, it is as much about meanings that are intrinsically and untranslatably musical, knowable only through the process of performance.

Byrd was not merely a product of the Reformation and all the angst that came with it, but of the Renaissance, which witnessed such a significant recalibration between artist and patron. He was, throughout his career, supported by the monarch — in particular, by Elizabeth, who evidently recognised a genius when she saw one.


A CENTURY earlier, a skilled composer would realise his talent only by being in holy orders and seeking preferment in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The composing was secondary to a portfolio of other responsibilities. Byrd was largely liberated from such encumbrances, owing to the indulgent patronage of various aristocrats, taking their lead from the monarch. (Despite long absences from London, Byrd remained on the salaried staff of the Chapel Royal until his death.)

AlamyMemorial plaque in Chichester Cathedral to Thomas Weelkes, organist at the cathedral from 1602 until his death on 30 November 1623

Nor would it be fair to regard this patronage network as being exclusively Roman Catholic. Those who supported him by buying his motet collections — in whose texts supposedly lurk the subversive rhetoric of Jesuit conspirators — were doctrinally diverse. As on the Continent, we cannot assume a fixed association between musical taste and confessional preference. If the music was high-quality, that was enough.

An important aspect of that quality — one that, again, marks Byrd out as a quintessentially Renaissance figure — is his ability as a musical orator. In the preface to his collection of liturgical music, the Gradualia of 1605, Byrd writes: “In sacred sentences . . . there is such hidden and concealed power that to a man thinking about divine things . . . the most appropriate measures come.”

Byrd’s mastery of text-setting is revealed at both the structural and local level. He segments his texts — some of them of considerable length — into paragraphs and sentences, each characterised by a different melodic theme and deployment of voices.

But what is unique to Byrd is the manner in which he will repeat — to the point of obsession — a particular text-musical phrase. As Kerry McCarthy (whose book on the composer is essential reading) points out, the technique mirrors that of prayerful contemplation espoused by the Jesuits. In that famous Agnus Dei from the Mass for Four Voices, the words “dona nobis pacem” take on a mantric character.

Nevertheless, Byrd can rarely be caught indulging in that form of word-setting typical of the madrigal genre, in which a nymph ascends a hill accompanied by a rising melody. Byrd illuminates the text from within rather than paint colours from without.


UNTIL the 20th century, it was Byrd’s English anthems (and those Latin works adapted to carry English texts), alongside the service music, that endured in the English church-music repertoire. And it is these works that represent the most significant counterpoint to the undoubtedly enticing theme of Byrd as alienated genius.

In works such as “Sing joyfully”, and “O Lord, let thy servant Elizabeth”, the madrigal and sacred song find perfect balance; and, in the Great Service, he provides for the emergent Anglican choral tradition an example of the music that Richard Hooker celebrated in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1597): “A thing which . . . carrieth as it were into ecstasies, filling the mind with heavenly joy, and for the time . . . severing it from the body.”

Byrd might be credited also as a pioneer of the musical form that, in the first half of the 17th century, was to dominate ambitious church art-music. “Teach me, O Lord” is a modest example of the verse anthem and is among the earliest examples; and yet, by the time of Byrd’s death, the genre — characterised by solo sections interspersed with chorus, all to an independent, instrumental accompaniment — was the soundtrack of exuberant Laudian worship.

Among the many Jacobean exponents was Thomas Weelkes, of Winchester and then Chichester Cathedrals; and to the related Verse Service genre Weelkes contributed no fewer than six settings.

I hope that this year’s anniversary will help to shine new light on these relatively neglected works; but it is for his madrigals and unaccompanied anthems that Weelkes is best remembered. The rhetoric here is of a different kind, the gestures rooted in the particularities of the text. Weelkes’s “When David heard”, which sets David’s great cry of grief — “O Absalom, my son, would God I had died for thee!” — is a piece of music theatre, albeit one designed for choir rather than consort.

There is an ostentatious drama in Weelkes’s choral anthems — take, for instance, the opening fanfare of “Hosanna to the Son of David” — which suggests a different type of choral force from that expected by Byrd, as well as a different liturgical environment, in which performance entails a distinction between musicians and “audience”.

AlamyPlaque in St Peter and St Paul’s, Stondon Massey, in Essex, commemorating the life of William Byrd

It is also tempting to perceive in this some reflection of the composer’s character: the “notorious swearer and blasphemer” of whom the story is told — quite possibly apocryphal — that, at Chichester, he urinated on the Dean’s head as the latter processed into evensong. Had he conquered the bottle, he might have proved as prolific as Thomas Tomkins and as brilliant as Orlando Gibbons.

Although they have a common death date, Byrd and Weelkes were from different musical and cultural epochs. Coursing through the polyphony of Byrd’s Gradualia is the melismatic extravagance of the pre-Reformation period; of Tallis and Taverner. While it is possible to overplay for dramatic effect the image of Byrd as a lonely rebel, the circumstances in which his music was conceived and performed were not merely influences, but were profound and infrastructural.

By the time Weelkes was lurching through his career, a new, confident Anglican culture was evolving, and a composer of Weelkes’s calibre could be assured not just of domestic chamber performances, but of validation in the most spacious ecclesiastical buildings.

Publishers tend to herd all music from before the Civil War into the “Tudor Church Music” camp — a branding that, for those who were around in 1623 to mourn these two great musicians, would have been puzzling.

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