Music William Byrd
Kerry McCarthy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0076


William Byrd (b. c. 1540–d. 1623) was the most versatile and prolific of English Renaissance composers. His musical career lasted nearly six decades, and more than 500 of his works have survived. He composed in almost every genre of his day: Latin motets and masses, vernacular sacred music, secular songs for accompanied solo voice or small vocal ensemble, and a wide variety of music for keyboard and strings. If every note of Byrd’s vocal music had been lost, he would still be considered an important composer on the strength of his instrumental works alone. His life is also of interest to historians of Elizabethan religion and culture: he was a Catholic dissident who thrived under hostile political circumstances in a largely Protestant nation. A handful of pieces by Byrd, mostly English sacred works, have been performed more or less without interruption since he wrote them. Many others had to wait until the 20th century for revival and full appreciation. His music attracted scholarly attention even in his own lifetime, and there has been a steady stream of books and articles since the tercentenary of his death in 1923. Much of the current literature on Byrd is quite specialized. This can be daunting for the beginner, but it also guarantees that persistent readers can find detailed discussion of almost any work or topic that might interest them.

Biographies and Reference Works

Comprehensive studies of Byrd’s life and music are relatively few. Fellowes 1948 is the first serious biography. Harley 1999 (supplemented and updated by Harley 2010) is a systematic life-and-works volume, featuring a number of important new biographical discoveries. Kerman’s article in Grove Music Online (Kerman 2007–2017) remains the most accessible account of the composer and his work and should be the first port of call for most readers. McCarthy 2013 is a full-length general biography in the Oxford Master Musicians series. Those looking for information in a particular area of Byrd studies may also wish to begin with Turbet 2012, Andrews 1966 will be useful to anyone studying the more technical aspects of Byrd’s style. Caldwell 1991 is recommended as background reading.

  • Andrews, H. K. The Technique of Byrd’s Vocal Polyphony. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

    Analytical encyclopedia of Byrd’s polyphonic style, with hundreds of well-chosen musical examples. Especially recommended for students of counterpoint and composition.

  • Caldwell, John. The Oxford History of English Music. Vol. 1, From the Beginnings to c. 1715. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

    Well-written and comprehensive account of early English musical history, with substantial discussion of Byrd and his music. Chapters 4 through 8 offer a broad musical context for Byrd’s works. Recommended as preliminary reading before taking on more specialized projects.

  • Fellowes, Edmund. William Byrd. 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1948.

    The classic Byrd biography, originally published 1936. Now outdated in many respects, but still worth reading as a sensitive account of Byrd’s career and a document of 20th-century musical scholarship.

  • Harley, John. William Byrd: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999.

    Life-and-works study by an accomplished archival researcher. The biographical chapters (pp. 10–154) are the most useful, with a great deal of background on Byrd’s birth, family, career, and nonmusical preoccupations. A number of errors in the original 1997 version are corrected in the 1999 revision.

  • Harley, John. The World of William Byrd: Musicians, Merchants and Magnates. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2010.

    A sequel to Harley 1999, best read after (or alongside) the earlier book. Offers further biographical information on Byrd and his family and more detailed accounts of the people in his various social circles.

  • Kerman, Joseph. “Byrd, William.” In Grove Music Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007–2017.

    Concise account of Byrd’s life and music by a distinguished scholar who spent more than half a century studying this repertory. Recommended both for beginners and for specialists. Includes a full list of Byrd’s works. An earlier version can be found in The New Grove High Renaissance Masters (New York: Norton, 1984), pp. 229–288.

  • McCarthy, Kerry. Byrd. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Biographical study intended for a broad audience, including students and performers of early music. Includes extensive musical examples and discussion of social and literary context.

  • Turbet, Richard. William Byrd: A Research and Information Guide. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    Systematic bibliography of all existing literature on Byrd, with supplementary materials. The 2006 edition includes books and articles published through 2011. A unique and valuable resource; do not be discouraged by the idiosyncratic indexing system.

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