About William Byrd
Byrd was the leading English composer of his generation, and together with his continental colleagues Giovanni Palestrina (c.1525-1594) and Orlando de Lassus (1532-1594), one of the acknowledged great masters of the late Renaissance. Byrd is considered by many the greatest English composer of any age, and indeed his substantial volume of high-quality compositions in every genre of the time makes it easy to consider him the greatest composer of the Renaissance -- his versatility and genius outshining those of Palestrina and Lassus in a self-evident way. English music of the period was amazingly rich, dominating the music of the continent in depth and variety, in a way that was not seen before or since. Also, Byrd's pre-eminent position at the beginning of music publication in England allowed him to leave a substantial printed legacy at the inception of many important musical forms. It would be impossible to overestimate his subsequent influence on the music of England, the Low Countries, and Germany.
Byrd also contributed heavily to the developing genre of the English Anthem (including the newer "verse" style with organ accompaniment), composing his widely regarded "Great Service" in this format. However, it was his Latin music that he chose to publish. This was series inaugurated in 1575 with the volume of Cantiones Sacrae, a joint collection with Thomas Tallis. Though this publication was not especially successful, Byrd followed it up with two more: the Cantiones Sacrae of 1589 and 1591. These "sacred songs" would be called motets on the continent, and represent the most significant English contribution to the motet repertory. Byrd also composed three Latin Masses (for three, four, and five voices) during the period 1593-1595. These masses are unusual not only because they could no longer have a liturgical function, but also because they include settings of the "Kyrie" -- something not previously done in English mass composition. Following the three masses, Byrd produced his unparalled legacy in sacred choral composition: the two huge volumes of Gradualia (1605 & 1607). These publications consist of many short pieces of liturgical music, set in verse sections, which can be combined in various ways to form liturgically accurate Propers cycles for every significant feast and votive mass of the Roman Catholic rite. Byrd also published numerous smaller scale songs: Psalmes, Sonets & Songs (1588), Songs of Sundrie Natures (1589) and Psalmes, Songs & Sonnets (1611), as well as a fairly substantial volume of consort music: viol fantasias, variations and dances of three to six parts, five five-part "In Nomines," as well as having some of his works arranged by others for the lute. The final -- and perhaps most impressive -- examples of Byrd's immense legacy of compositions are his keyboard pieces. Taken together, Byrd's huge legacy of music -- several hundred individual compositions -- makes him one of the most brilliant composers in Western history. ~ Todd McComb, Rovi