Book Review: Byrd, by Kerry McCarthy (Oxford University Press, 2013)
An eagerly anticipated biography of Essex composer William Byrd (c.1540-1623) has just been published by Oxford University Press in their ‘The Master Musicians’ series – Byrd, by American musicologist Kerry McCarthy. Naturally it brings together all the latest thinking on the composer’s enigmatic life as a Catholic living in Elizabethan England at a time of persecution. Recent discoveries of the composer include the books he owned – some being tirades against Papists – and his age: he was 58 or thereabouts in 1598, so did not die at the age of eighty as previously (i.e. before the 1990s) thought.
The book presents, for me, a fresh emphasis on Byrd’s religious beliefs suggesting a gradual sympathy and conversion to Catholicism. He married a Catholic, and as an artist was appalled by the treatment of Jesuits such as Robert Campion so as to be moved to write a lament. We read again of the protection he received from Queen Elizabeth I through her personal intervention into a case brought before Byrd of non-attendance at his parish church before his move to Stondon Massey, perhaps in January 1595. But it was the Stondon Massey years, in semi-retirement from the Chapel Royal, where he advanced further his Catholic beliefs through the writing of Latin set text for the clandestine Catholic worship of his friends, for example the powerful Petre family of Ingatestone Hall.
As an amateur local historian I approach the life of Byrd through his life not works. So whilst I would agree with John Milsom who in an appreciation writes that Byrd’s music is centre stage, I find Dr McCarthy’s approach to mixing historic detail seamlessly with musical theoretic description a distraction. My preference in presentation is John Harley’s earlier biography of 1997.
Christopher’s Howse’s review for The Telegraph, 20 September 2013, can be found here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10323301/The-secret-life-of-William-Byrd.htm