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by kerry mccarthy
oxford, 304 pages, $39.95

Judging by the tracks programmed by my local classical music radio station, no composer of merit existed before the Baroque period. DJs with soothing voices regularly serve up Vivaldi, Handel, Scarlatti, and Bach, especially during rush hour. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons ought to be renamed the Four Busiest Drive-Time Hours

But for the most cherished moments of listening, in rush hours or unrushed ones, I increasingly find myself turning to earlier composers. Over a lifetime of listening to music, I haven’t encountered anything more moving than the major works of ­Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin des Prez, Guillaume Dufay, Hildegard von Bingen, Orlande de Lassus, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Thomas Tallis, and my favorite of this pre-­Baroque period, William Byrd.

Why are classical radio stations so reluctant to broadcast this music? I suspect the answer is a simple one: the obvious and overwhelming spiritual content of these works. I remember sharing a cabin at a conference some years back, where my assigned roommate caught me by surprise in the furtive act of listening to Ockeghem. “Why are you playing church music?” he demanded. Judging by his reaction, you might have thought I’d left a copy of the Watchtower on his pillow. I suspect classical radio station programmers have a similar attitude toward these pre-Baroque composers.

Those who share my admiration for William Byrd will appreciate the irony. For Byrd, unlike most of the composers named above, created trouble for himself during his own lifetime by writing church music—for the wrong church at the wrong time. He composed music for Catholic liturgy during an era when a British subject could be fined, imprisoned, or even executed for allegiance to the Church of Rome.

Byrd’s life is nearly as fascinating as his music. Yet until recently, scholars devoted little attention to him. Anglican clergyman Edmund H. Fellowes’ 1936 biography, revised in 1948, was the first full treatment of the subject, and for a long time looked as if it might also be the last. In more recent years, we have benefited from the contributions of John Harley and Joseph Kerman.

Until the publication of Kerry McCarthy’s new book Byrd(dedicated to Kerman), I would have sent readers to one of these sources for information on the composer. Now McCarthy, an associate professor of music at Duke, has written a very nearly perfect introduction to the composer.

She combines biography, social history, and musical analysis in one compact volume. Her crisp, jargon-free prose shows passion on every page. She occasionally delves into technical discussions, but these will not deter the general reader. This is the book on Byrd I wish someone had given me, years ago, when I first fell under the sway of the composer’s music.

In some ways, Byrd’s life recalls that of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose complex relationship with Stalin and Marxist ideology continues to stir up debate and controversy. Figures such as Byrd and Shostakovich force us to ask basic and essential questions about the role of the artist in turbulent times. Both confronted political and social mandates that ran counter to their deeply held values, and somehow managed to operate simultaneously within the established system and outside its boundaries of control.

Byrd had influential friends who could help him overcome the challenges faced by a prominent Catholic in Renaissance England, most notably Queen Elizabeth, who granted Byrd and Tallis a patent covering printed music that amounted to a virtual monopoly. His brilliance as a composer gave him clout, and he wasn’t above using it to extricate himself from the sticky religious issues: Documents referring to a 1592 recusancy case against him conclude with a note stating “let the trial cease by order of the Queen.”

Yet Byrd still needed to live a double life and constantly balance the conflicting demands of his religious convictions with the political realities of his day. When required, he took a loyalty oath, affirming the Queen’s supremacy in all matters, including those “spiritual or ecclesiastical.”

Yet such statements of loyalty coexisted with ample expressions of dissent. “Some of Byrd’s most sublime music,” McCarthy writes, “can be traced back to the house chapels and secret meeting places of his fellow Catholics,” and this “secret” Byrd may have had as much influence as the master composer who served the Queen. “By his forties,” she notes, “Byrd was flaunting his recusancy in public, which could not have been a comfortable position for a professional courtier.” Many who practiced the old faith in private must have found comfort and inspiration in such a prominent role model.

Byrd’s eventual decision to make this private music available to the general public testified not only to the strength of his religious convictions, but to his skill in mobilizing the support of those who did not share his faith. When necessary, he would submit his works to a Church of England censor, yet McCarthy documents the many ways Byrd defied authorities and ensured that his allegiance to his monarch did not come at the expense of devotion to his God.

He kept “dangerous” friends, and repeatedly put himself at risk for his faith. He offered assistance to Catholics involved in political intrigues, such as Thomas Paget, who had to flee to the continent after he was linked to a plot to depose Queen Elizabeth. Byrd’s name appeared frequently on lists of suspects involved in various plots.

Authorities intercepted his letters and imposed fines for his refusal to obey laws mandating attendance of Anglican services. In 1585, a warrant was issued to search his house, and he may have found himself briefly suspended from the Queen’s service around this time. The composer made conciliatory gestures when required, but at the end of his life Byrd announced in his will his hope that “I may live and die a true and perfect member” of the “Holy Catholic Church, without which I believe there is no salvation for me.”

Yet his greatest gift to his faith came in his work as a composer. Again and again, Byrd published music to accompany prohibited liturgies and controversial lyrics. Setting any Latin religious text could be construed as a rebellious act during this period, but even Byrd’s songs in the vernacular showed remarkable bravery.

His song “Why Do I Use My ­Paper, Ink and Pen?” from 1588 is taken from the beginning of a lament over the execution of Jesuit Edmund Campion. It is ostensibly about early Christian martyrs, but the real meaning of this coded, potentially incriminating, expression of support for Campion would have been evident to many, and the printer who initially published this text had his ears cut off in punishment.

Byrd ranks among the most intriguing figures of his day, but his life story is also filled with apparent paradoxes. We know more about him than we do, for example, about his contemporary Shakespeare, but the available facts raise as many questions as answers. Why didn’t he leave England for the continent, where his talents would have been amply recognized, and he could have practiced his faith openly? Why did he flaunt his independence in some situations, but take such extreme steps to hide it in other instances (for example, filling his private library with anti-Catholic literature)? McCarthy doesn’t gloss over conflicting details and deserves praise for her even-handed weighing of evidence and interpretation of the historical record.

She also provides interesting background on the biggest open issue: namely, why Queen Elizabeth gave so much freedom to a subject whose strong ties to the Church of Rome must have come to her attention. The solution here may be the simplest one of all: Elizabeth admired his artistry. The queen, McCarthy explains, “had a pronounced taste for good music, sacred as well as secular, and she made room for it at her court. Her private musical establishment enjoyed some immunity from the puritanical tendencies imposed by many parish and cathedral clergy.”

During a period when others viewed complex church music with suspicion, Elizabeth embraced it—and no one in her realm demonstrated greater mastery of it than William Byrd.

McCarthy gives ample space to consideration of Byrd’s major pieces and helps us understand their inner workings. Those unfamiliar with this composer may want to listen first to his three Latin Masses, for three, four, and five voices, published between 1592 and 1595; his Latin motets; and parts of the Gradualia, for example, his exquisite Christmas service. Each of these is dealt with smartly by McCarthy, who offers both historical context and detailed musicological analysis.

I have a few quibbles with this book. Although McCarthy writes at length about Byrd’s influence on later composers, she spends little time discussing the resurgence of his music in the twentieth century. And when she offers up criticisms of the Douay-Rheims Bible and denounces the “darker side” of British Catholicism, she seems to have lost sight of Byrd.

These are but momentary lapses. McCarthy has earned my thanks by writing a book that will inspire readers to listen to Byrd’s imposing body of music with open ears, and hear the sublime beauty it still has to offer.

Ted Gioia is the author of eight books on music, including Delta Blues and The History of Jazz.

Image by British Museum on Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, halved and duplicated, colors adjusted.