William Byrd Biography

William Byrd was a gifted music composer of the Renaissance period. Read on to know more about his childhood, life and timeline in this biography.

William Byrd

Quick Facts

Gender: Male
Birthday: 1538
Died: 1623
Nationality: British

A renowned Shakespearean composer, William Byrd was a talented musician of his time and cohort. He had some great works to his credit and primarily dominated music of the Renaissance period in Old England. He was known as versatile composer who had a strong foundation in almost all genres, and was by far, the greatest English composer known at the time. He outshone most of the other composers he worked with such as ‘Lassus’ and ‘Giovanni’ and established himself as a dignified composer in the courts of royalty. Primarily influenced by the romantic Renaissance, Byrd came with small and large scale songs, masses, organ, choral and songs backed by religious tones. In a time dominated with largely secular music, Byrd broke all boundaries and leapt into a world of novelty in terms of Music. His works then went on to establish and influence other composers in and around England. He believed in combining sacredness to his music and brought out multifarious vocal pieces. He had also contributed immensely to the development of Virtuoso styles and early keyboard music, making him a genius of his time. His celebrated works are undoubtedly “Passing measures Pavan and Galliard”, ‘Songs of Sundrie Natures’ and ‘My Ladye Nevells Book’.

Childhood And Early Life

Little is known of William Byrd’s childhood. He was the son of a musician called Thomas Byrd about who little is documented. William was born to his parents with four other sisters and two brothers. A child prodigy, he developed an adoration and passion for music from a very young age. Nothing much is known about Byrd’s childhood, till he started taking lessons as a teenager, under Thomas Tallis, who was then, a leading music composer at the Royal Chapel. There have been documents that suggest that Byrd also learned under leading, royal vocalists such as William Mundy and John Sheppard, who induced a thirst for vocal music. There are no surviving records that confirm his childhood training, but there have been speculations that suggest that he later, went on to become a renowned choirboy at the Royal Chapel.

Musical Beginnings

William Byrd was believed to have contributed to a psalm ‘In Exitu Israel’, by composing a few bits and pieces of his own, between the years 1553 to 1558 and right at the end of the reign of Mary Tudor. Byrd may have also had a few more compositions to his credit during his teenage years, but none have been documented. After a few more formative years of musical service at the Royal Chapel, he went on to become a master of choristers and an organist aged twenty, at the Lincoln Cathedral, in the year 1563. Here, he wrote his works in English and also contributed to religious music services. He provided some of the finest music to young English churches at the time, and was slowly starting to become a prevalent figure. Anthems, songs and hymns were composed fervently during this period and he was finally appointed the ‘Gentleman’ of the Royal Chapel in the year 1570.

Personal Life

Before being appointed as the ‘Gentleman’ of the Royal Chapel, there were countless allegations that he faced during his tenure as choirmaster. It was a period of tense, heated accusations and as a result he had to face deductions and cuts in his salary. At one point of time, his salary was not given to him at all. Being a talent organist came with its share of problems. He spent long hours creating choral music on his trusted organ, and he was later cornered by ‘Puritanism’ forces that were on the rise at Lincoln at the time. His misery period ended or softened after he married ‘Julian Birley’ on 14th September 1568. Julian provided him the much needed relief and constancy in his personal life. The result of his marriage was a rewarding one. He went on to lead a long, comfortable life and gave birth to seven children with his wife.
It was after being appointed as the Gentleman in the Royal Chapel, he shared his post as organist with his former tutor Thomas Tallis. This gave a solid foundation for Byrd to build strong ties with Tallis and also provided him a definitive learning space. Queen Elizabeth the 1st was very impressed with the overflowing talent and the magic that came through their musical collaboration, and offered them a patent to get their music published in the year 1575. It was during this period, Byrd contributed to the sources that were integral in the development of the new genus; the English Anthem and introduced organ inclusions as accompaniments to the new genre.
One of his most celebrated works called ‘Great Service’ was created in this arrangement. Despite his successes with his English compositions, he chose to publish his Latin works which he was more confident of. This began in the early period of 1575 with a series known as the ‘Cantiones Sacrae’ which literally translated to ‘Sacred songs’. Though the response was tepid, he continued to publish more ‘Sacred Songs’ in the years between 1589 and 1591. These would later go on to be recognized as ‘motets’ that would become significant English contributions to the world of music, depicting the composer’s skill and uniformity of works.

Late Career

Predominantly known as a Catholic composer, William Byrd went on to compose and write a mass of choral and sacred works. Some of his most illustrious compositions was the three ‘Latin Masses’ that included a new variation known as the ‘Kyrie’, that was novel to English composition. These compositions also lacked the liturgical backdrops that were omnipresent in all his other compositions and the compositions of other music composers of the time. The Latin Masses were very well received as they mirrored Byrd’s insightful mode. Towards the end of the 1590’s, Byrd composed multitudinous small-scale songs, sonnets, and Psalms. These included a variety of songs with mixed genres from modern to secular and could be performed with a sole vocalist or an entire group, though the norms suggested that these songs were to be performed solo. He even went on to compose his notable six-part consorts and dance music of three to six parts. A memorable example would be his composition; ‘In Nomines’. It was during this period, when he was recognized as an unparalleled composer with a flair for versatility.
In the early period of the 1600’s, he went on to produce his supreme opuses in sacred and choral genres, in the form of two volumes known as ‘Gradualia’ in the years 1605 and 1607. These liturgical pieces of music went on to become a superlative tribute in the world of Western music. Their structured verses along with fitted chant melodies made these compound forms of music well appreciated by the public. William Byrd was a staunch Catholic and it reflected and dominated most parts of his music. However, this did not stop him from composing music for the Anglican Church with which he had started off in his career. Most of Byrd’s scales were massive with numerous counterpoints and solos to make the compositions more stimulating. Some of his traditional, liturgical pieces were performed in places like the ‘York minister’ in the early periods of 1618.

Last Works

Towards the end of his life, Byrd would have composed a whopping 470 musical works, and would go on to create a few more before his death in the year 1623. His last collection of English songs known as ‘Psalms, Songs and Sonnets’ were published in the 1589 set in the year 1611. He also went on to composing motets with Biblical settings and some of his famous works in this category were ‘This Day Christ was Born’ and ‘Have Mercy upon me’. Some of these were also passed on as church anthems set in different verses during the time. Towards the end of the decade, Byrd would have produced more keyboard pieces to celebrate the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and his famous English compositions known as ‘Teares or Lamentacions of a Sorrowful Soule’.

Death And Legacy

Byrd was a reputed musician among all other English musicians of his time. He succeeded in bringing out secular, vocal music, liturgical items, and Latin compositions showing his versatility in different genres of music. Despite the many downfalls in his career, his 470 music compositions spoke for themselves. In a secular world, he went on to establish vocal and instrumental music, making it one of the most dominant fragments of Western music at the time. With his strong religious adherence and a cultivated, refined style of music, Byrd went on to inspire a long line of musician’s right from his time to the modern composers of today. Though a lot of his works and history were rarely documented, some of his ardent followers got together to revive and relive the greatest of William Byrd’s music of a lost time and period.
Byrd died on July 4th 1623, in his home in the Standon Massey. After his death, much of his works were dispersed and lost, only to be found by modern musicians. He died wealthy despite the many ups and downs of his musical career.


1540: William Byrd was born in Lincoln, England.
1550: Studied under Thomas Tallis.
1553: He was a choir boy in London’s Royal Chapel till the year 1568, where he was also offered a post as an organist.
1568: Married his wife, Julian Birley and had seven children with her.
1572: Made the ‘Gentleman’ of the Royal Chapel by Queen Elizabeth.
1575: Published his first Latin works called “Sacred Songs” till the year 1591.
1593: Left London and settled in Standon Massey, Essex.
1595: Composed the renowned three masses.
1605: Composed his renowned Gradualia, motets, and songs largely influenced by Catholic backgrounds.
1611: Wrote his well-known Psalms, Songs and Sonnets.
1623: Died at his Standon Massey home as a wealthy, established music composer.

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William Byrd Biography


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Last Updated

May 29, 2019

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