In the Company of William Byrd


This CD places the English Renaissance composer William Byrd (1540–1623) alongside five other musicians whose work he knew well. It is a diverse group, spanning several generations and reaching far beyond the borders of England. Byrd himself seems never to have visited continental Europe—although he did own a copy of a printed travel book, a sort of sixteenth-century Michelin guide, with advice for first-time travelers abroad. (He was duly warned against the dangers of warmer climes, from “popish superstition” to “the daily use of Garlic.”) Although Byrd was no more than an armchair traveler, he certainly stayed in touch with international musical life. He kept up a lively correspondence with fellow-musicians both at home and abroad. He had access to the best collection of imported music in England, everything from old chant manuscripts to Monteverdi’s new books of madrigals. Like the great composers of later centuries, he had a keen ear for what his contemporaries were doing, and he spent his whole life learning from them. The closest comparison may be with Shakespeare, who never hesitated to beg, borrow, or steal from the rich Renaissance tradition of drama and poetry.

With the exception of one elegant little French song by Philip van Wilder, all the pieces on this CD are Latin motets. The motet enjoyed an unexpected revival of sorts in Elizabethan England, with Byrd himself taking a leading role. Latin motets had been banned from the reformed services of the Anglican church, but they took on a new life as sophisticated chamber music, sung by small groups of skilled musicians. This sort of music was no longer welcome in cathedral choirs, so it resurfaced in academic circles, the private rooms of the well-to-do, and the sometimes heroic efforts of scribes and collectors. Now that settings of the Catholic mass (the traditional grand genre of Renaissance music) were out of the question in England, the motet offered English musicians their only real opportunity to write large and complex works for many voices. It was also a very good choice for a cosmopolitan figure like Byrd, because
there was no language barrier: educated people in any country could understand and enjoy musical prayers in Latin. The point was not lost on the printer of Byrd’s first book of motets, who advertised it as “worthy to be published throughout the world.” This recording is a small attempt to restore his music to its rich international context. 

CD Booket (Our Lady: Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks)

CD Booklet (In the Company of William Byrd)

Markdavin Obenza, director


1. William Byrd (1540-1623) - Ne irascaris Domine (8:10)
2. Philip van Wilder (c.1500-1553) - O doux regard (4:03)
3. William Byrd - Plorans plorabit (4:54)
4. Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543-1588) - Da pacem Domine (4:12)* 
5. William Byrd - Tristitia et anxietas (9:31)
6. Clemens non Papa (c.1510-1555) - Tristitia et anxietas
7. William Byrd - Libera me Domine (7:29)
8. Thomas Morley (1557-1602) - Domine Dominus noster (3:45)
9. Philippe de Monte (1521-1603) - Filiae Jerusalem (3:11)
10. William Byrd - Ad Dominum cum tribularer (10:32)

Total time: 64:03

*word-premiere recording


Philip van Wilder (c. 1500–1553) was a Flemish lutenist who was brought to England in his early twenties as part of the ambitious cultural program undertaken by King Henry VIII, who spared no expense in emulating the glittering courts of European royalty. Wilder ended up as a popular composer and a music tutor to English princes and princesses. He wrote ceremonial music for Henry’s court (he seems to have been a collaborator with Thomas Tallis) and a large number of French songs, which, like everything else French, were very fashionable in England at the time. Byrd must have known his song O doux regard, because he borrowed its first page as the beginning of Ne irascaris Domine. A gently melancholy love song, as it turns out, also does well as a gently melancholy prayer. Wilder’s piece was (rather unjustly) forgotten after tastes turned to Italian music, but it gained some measure of immortality in Ne irascaris Domine, which became the most popular and most widely distributed of all Byrd’s motets. One laconic Elizabethan scribe simply copied it out with the note “good song.”


Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543–1588) was an Italian composer who spent almost two decades in England working for Queen Elizabeth. His English contemporaries called him “the Phoenix of our time,” an epithet they also used for Byrd in later years. Like many other Renaissance composers, Ferrabosco did a lot of traveling, and he seems to have used his frequent journeys as an opportunity for intrigue and espionage of various sorts. He was mixed up in a scandal surrounding the murder of an Italian colleague, and he was under surveillance, at different times, by both the Inquisition and the English Protestant authorities. His services must have been highly valued by Elizabeth, because by his mid-twenties he was already being paid £100 per year—a small fortune in his day, and more than three times Byrd’s salary as chief musician of the Chapel Royal. At a time when rather little up-to-date European music was readily available in England, he was a perfect match for his Elizabethan contemporaries, given their insatiable thirst (mixed with a dash of suspicion) for foreign luxury goods. Byrd knew him personally and engaged in friendly musical rivalries with him. Some of their best-known compositions are more or less reworkings of each other. Da pacem Domine (a long-lost piece recorded here for the first time ever) and Plorans plorabit are less directly related, although they both use a rare and clever technique called “inversion”: some of the voices sing the opening theme right side up, while others sing it upside down.

Clemens non Papa (c. 1510–1555) was perhaps the most prolific and beloved composer of the generation between Josquin and Palestrina—a generation which tends to be unjustly ignored in our own day, if only for lack of famous names. As far as we know, Clemens never made it to England, but his music certainly did. One of Byrd’s colleagues had a carefully preserved library full of his motets. He seems to have been a colorful character: he was described by a contemporary as a “great drunkard and of loose morals,” and one of the musical laments on his death is a tongue-in-cheek reworking of a drinking song. Byrd borrowed the unusual text of Tristitia et anxietas from a very similar piece by Clemens, although he edited the long ending into something much more concise and perhaps, in the end, more moving. Clemens was at his best when writing this sort of introverted, melancholy piece—a trait shared by Byrd, whose motets were renowned in his own day for their “gravity and piety.”

Thomas Morley (1557–1602) was the only other composer on this CD who was actually born in England. Morley was a student and a great admirer of Byrd, but his own career took a very different direction from his teacher’s. He was an enthusiast for Italian music who more or less single-handedly made the Elizabethan madrigal popular and profitable. Much of this was a clever exercise in plagiarism: he got his hands on the latest madrigals from Rome or Venice, re-set them to English words, changed some notes here and there, and used the official Elizabethan monopoly on printing music (which Byrd had generously passed along to him and his family) to sell cheap mass-market editions of them to the English middle class. At its best, this produced delightful pieces such as Now is the month of Maying​​​ and April is in my mistress’ face​, madrigals which are still known and loved four centuries later. Domine Dominus noster​​​ is one of Morley’s (quite rare) serious works. He wrote it in 1576, when he was aged only nineteen. He must already have had a taste for borrowing, because the last half-dozen measures are lifted directly from Byrd’s own motet Libera me Domine, published just the year before. Despite his love for light-hearted Italian music, Morley still reserved high praise for the Latin motet:

. . . of all others [it] requireth most art, and moveth and causeth most strange effects in the hearer: for it will draw the auditor, and especially the skillful auditor, into a devout and reverent kind of consideration of him for whose praise it was made.

Philippe de Monte (1521–1603) enjoyed a very long life, just a year shorter than Byrd’s. He lived and worked all over Europe: his career took him through Belgium, Spain, Italy, Vienna, Prague, and a brief stint in London in the 1550s. He kept up a musical correspondence with Byrd, who seems to have met him during his apprentice years in London. In 1583–84, the two composers exchanged a splendid pair of eight-voice pieces, Super flumina Babylonis (Monte) and Quomodo cantabimus (Byrd), which have been recorded together numerous times. (Monte also wrote musical letters to Orlando di Lasso and a number of other famous composers: he appears to have been one of those rare sixteenth-century musicians who knew absolutely everyone else in the business.) Ad Dominum cum tribularer is another of Byrd’s (very few) eight-voice motets, paired here with Filiae Jerusalem, a less familiar piece by Monte. The intensity of Byrd’s music is a good fit for the poignant text:

With those who hate peace I was a peacemaker: when I spoke to them, they battled me without cause.

Notes and translations prepared by Kerry McCarthy. 

The music on this CD was researched and prepared by Kerry McCarthy. She has taught at Duke University and Stanford University, and has published widely on the music of the English Renaissance, alongside an active career as a singer, editor, and lecturer. Her new biography of William Byrd appeared with Oxford University Press in 2013. She is grateful to Jamie Apgar (University of California, Berkeley) for his expert reconstruction and edition of Ferrabosco’s Da pacem Domine.




"The Byrd Ensemble displays the sterling qualities found in their previous CD - beautiful blending, excellent intonation, soaring lines, ringing chords - and if they keep up at this level (and why not?), Seattle will be drawing singers just to work with them. This CD is a must for lovers of choral song. I can only hope that we may expect such a gift every year."

Moore, Tom. “Recording Reviews.” Early Music America July 2013.