article 96: ON THE 400th ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF WILLIAM BYRD


The New York Times always manages to get it wrong where early music is concerned. So it was yesterday, the 400th anniversary of the death of the greatest composer in English history, and one of the greatest of all time: William Byrd. The commemorative article was bursting with errors, distortions, smarmy uplift and strained diversity.

To wash the evil taste out of my mouth, I went back to photographs Naoko took in the summer of 2018. We sought out the location of the manor house granted to Byrd by Elizabeth I. It wasnít easy; the corner of Essex where it is located is part of a thinly scattered village called Stondon Massey, and the road itís on is an obscure, wooded country lane. The present occupants, whom we happened to catch as they were preparing to leave in their Bentley, were vaguely aware of where they were living. They thought there was a blue plaque hidden somewhere in the ivy...I was tall enough to go groping for it...ah yes, there it is...

Their teenage daughter had no inkling of who William Byrd could have been. Her parents kindly let us take pictures of the house, then as now called Stondon Place. It was rebuilt on the old foundations in the early 18th century, and again, in the old style, after a fire in 1866. The garden front is shown here.




Byrd and his wife were Catholic recusants, and could not be buried in the local Anglican churchyard. Somewhere around this church their bones probably still lie. There is a small shrine to their memory inside.




A few miles away is Ingatestone Hall, the partly-Tudor home of the baronial Petre family. The present Lord Petre, the 18th baron, showed us around. Portraits of Sir William Petre, a remarkable survivor of the political storms of the 16th century and dedicatee of one of Byrdís finest pavanes, and another of his son John, the first Lord Petre who hosted Byrd for music on many a Catholic feast day, hang in the second floor gallery.



Byrd addressed a plea, which would be more honored in the observance than in the usual breach, for careful execution of his works to ďall true lovers of MusickeĒ, which closes thus: ďAs I have done my best endeavor to give you content, so I beseech you satisfie my desire in hearing them well expressed: and then I doubt not, for Art and Ayre both of skillful and ignorant they will deserve liking. Vale. Thine W. Byrd.Ē

Byrdís copyist John Baldwin ended a panegyric to Byrd far better than I ever could:

With fingers and with penne:
he hathe not now his peere:
For in this world so wide:
is none can him come neere:
the rarest man hee is:
in musicks worthy art:
that now on earthe doth live:
I speake it from my harte:
or heere to fore hathe been:
or after him shall come:
none such I fear shall rise:
that may be calde his sonne:Ö
fare well I saie fare well:
fare well and heere I end:
fare well, melodious birde:
fare well sweete musicks frende.


July 5, 2023






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