William Byrd: Political and Recusant Composer
Originally presented at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research (NCUR) 2012, held at Weber State University, Ogden, Utah, on March 29, 31, 2012, and subsequently published in the conference's open access Proceedings.
Amidst the pendulum of political and religious upheaval that pervaded England throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century, William Byrd stands as one of the best loved and lauded composers. Byrd succeeded in the secular and sacred realms, contributing great works to the Anglican Church, popularizing the English madrigal and producing prolific amounts of sacred music. However, in a time where one’s religious beliefs were often linked with political loyalty, Byrd defied his monarch’s established and enforced Protestant religion, composing politically charged music for recusant use in clandestine Catholic Church services. His themes were aligned with the Jesuit mission and his texts were often drawn from the lips of martyred Catholics at the gallows; their last words forever immortalized by Byrd for the furthering of the Jesuit cause and the counter-reformation. The examination of sources by prominent Byrd scholars, an analyses of Byrd’s ‘political’ compositions and a study of the social and historical background are used to place Byrd within the appropriate context, prove his recusant and political leanings, and analyze his precarious relationship with the English monarch, Elizabeth I. It is shown that Byrd could not have proceeded with his recusant practices, personally or musically, had it not been for his status as a composer, as well as Byrd’s shrewdness in procuring diplomatic relationships with high persons at court and with Queen Elizabeth I through the Chapel Royal. Finally, Byrd’s success at writing for the Anglican Church service and popular secular music showcased his ability to take a moderate stance in situations that benefitted his status with the crown.