William Byrd

c. 1539/40–1623

William Byrd, English organist and composer of the Shakespearean age is best known for his development of the English madrigal. He also wrote virginal and organ music that elevated the English keyboard style.

Of Byrd’s origins and early life in London little is known. He was a pupil and protégé of the organist and composer Thomas Tallis, and his first authenticated appointment was as organist at Lincoln Cathedral (1563). In 1572 he returned to London to take up his post as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, where he shared the duties of organist with Tallis.

The close personal and professional relationship between the two men had important musical consequences. In 1575 Elizabeth Igranted them a joint monopoly for the importing,printing, publishing, and sale of music and the printing of music paper. The first work under their imprint appeared in that year—a collection of Cantiones sacrae dedicated to the queen; of the 34 motets, Tallis contributed 16 and Byrd 18.

In 1577 Byrd and his family moved to Harlington, Middlesex. As a devout lifelong Roman Catholic, he probably preferred the greater privacy of living outside London. Yet, in spite of his close social contact with many other Catholics, some of whom were certainly implicated in treasonable activities, his own loyalty to the government was never questioned.