The foiled Catholic Gunpowder Plot of 1605 sought to blast decades of Protestant domination in England by detonating 36 barrels of gunpowder in the House of Lords. It was at this historical time that an unfortunate wayfarer enjoying a draught in an English pub was arrested for the possession of books of sacred music written by William Byrd.
The wayfarer was tossed into the notorious Newgate Prison. William Byrd, however, was not.
The volatile turn of the 17th century, riled by the deepening schism between Catholics and Protestants, is the setting for Kerry McCarthy’s magisterial biography of the master musician William Byrd, hailed as the phoenix of his generation, and one of the most beloved composers of Elizabethan England. It was an age of contradictions: a time when Shakespeare wrote Othello, Lear, and Macbeth, when Puritan fervor built new communities in a new land, when possessing a pamphlet of sacred music might condemn you to death.
McCarthy provides a vivid account of the dynamics and changing mores of the era, illustrated by the life of one musician whose extraordinary talent was balanced by a profoundly workaday life. He struggled to pay his bills, quarreled with neighbors, tried to get ahead. He followed politics, and made both sacrifices and compromises around his own Catholicism. As McCarthy portrays the moment, it was a time of exploration, upheaval, and extremism. One could “attend an open scholarly debate and see dissenters burned at the stake, sometimes on the same day.”
McCarthy comes to Byrd as a musician first, and offers the reader thoughtful analyses of the composer’s music, from his earliest popular motets to his secret and sometimes illegal final works. The book includes extensive analysis of the music—a delight for any musician looking for a close reading of Byrd’s masterful scores. However, McCarthy’s approach invites students of history, literature, and culture to the table, even if the reader has little background in musicology. This is fitting. Byrd’s career was a balance of his unquenchable enthusiasm for the music, and the necessity of navigating a complex and changing world.
William Byrd’s life spanned a period of religious and political volatility. His talent earned leniency that few other subjects might have won at the time. He was lucky he wasn’t condemned for treason—and so are we.