Composer. Regarded as the greatest English musician of his generation. He studied music with Thomas Tallis and sang in London's Royal Chapel during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553 to 1568). After a stint as organist of Lincoln Cathedral, he was named "Gentleman of the Chapel Royal" by Queen Elizabeth in 1572. Byrd worked there as a singer, composer, and organist for two decades. A devout Catholic, he wrote many Anglican settings for royal occasions; at the same time he secretly attended illegal Catholic services and provided music for these events. With the Queen's permission he even published three volumes of these clandestine works as "Cantiones Sacrae" (1575 to 1591). In 1593, weary of compromising his faith and his art, Byrd left London and settled in the village of Stondon Massey, Essex. After that he devoted most of his energies composing to the Catholic liturgy, including his three great Masses (1593-95) and two books of "Gradualia" (1605-07), elaborate cycles of psalms and motets. It was a measure of Elizabeth's esteem that Byrd was allowed to keep his position at court, and his handsome salary, in absentia. This ended with the rise of King James I and the "Gunpowder Plot" of 1605. With anti-Catholic hysteria sweeping England all of Byrd's "Papist" music was banned, and one unlucky man was tossed into Newgate Prison for possessing a copy of "Gradualia". Byrd himself was never jailed but he was forced to pay heavy fines for refusing to attend Stondon Massey's church, St. Peter's and St. Paul's. He was buried in its churchyard, in an unmarked plot of unconsecrated ground. In 1923, on the 300th anniversary of Byrd's death, a cenotaph was dedicated to him inside St. Peter's & St. Paul's; there is also a memorial tablet for him at Lincoln Cathedral. Byrd was a major transitional figure in English music. The Renaissance influence is still prevalent in his choral works, but his keyboard pieces point the way to the new Baroque style. With his collection "Songs of Sundrie Natures" (1589) Byrd introduced the Italian form of madrigal (secular song) to England, where it achieved its greatest significance.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards