Previous Project All Past Projects Next Project

Is it a Byrd? Exploring lesser-known music by William Byrd, Renaissance Superman

Performance Details: Saturday, 29th of April, 2023 at 7:00pm
Venue:St Michael's Church, Lewes

As it is a Byrd year in 2023 (Byrd's death was in 1623), we continue our series of concerts focussing on the works of William Byrd with a programme entirely devoted to the great English genius. Our special guest artist is Hamish Dustagheer, Director of Music at St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton, and he will be playing keyboard music on the unique historical organ housed at the Church of St-Michael-in-Lewes. Our repertoire spans secular and sacred, with large forces and small. Come join us as we celebrate the mastery of the great William Byrd, Renaissance Superman!

More information

Special guest artist: Hamish Dustagheer


We're delighted to be collaborating with Hamish Dustagheer. Here is some information about him:

Hamish Dustagheer is Director of Music at St Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton, and College Organist and Organ Tutor at Ardingly College. Born in 1992, he graduated from the Royal College of Music with first-class honours and the keyboard prize; he subsequently completed postgraduate studies at New College, Oxford with distinction. Various appointments followed, both in ecclesiastical and educational foundations – notably his tenure as Maestro di Cappella of the Archdiocese of Malta (resident at St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta), and Interim Director of Chapel Music at Oundle School and Lancing College. His church and teaching positions have been held alongside a busy freelance career at home and abroad, as well as serving for over a decade as Visiting Organist at Quarr Abbey.

Concert programme

From Cantiones Sacrae 1575

  • Miserere mihi
  • Siderum rector

From Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs 1588

  • Come to me grief
  • Ambitious love

From Cantiones Sacrae 1 1589

  • Domine, secundum multitudinem
  • In resurrectione tua

Music for keyboard:

  • Miserere in d
  • Fantasia in G
  • The Queenes Alman

From Songs of sundrie natures 1589

  • O Lord my God
  • Attend mine humble prayer

From Cantiones Sacrae 2 1591

  • Miserere mei, Deus
  • Descendit de coelis


From Gradualia 1 1605

  • Pange lingua

From Gadualia 2 1607

  • Vidimus stellam
  • Surge illuminare

Music for keyboard:

  • Miserere in a
  • Fantasia in d
  • Monsieurs Alman

From Psalms, Songs, and Sonnets 1611

  • In Winter cold
  • Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles

Byrd's Third Service (Mr. Bird's Three Minnoms')
O Lord, make thy Servant

Programme note

Download our PDF concert programme

There is so much William Byrd being performed this year! Byrd died in 1623 and the Early Music world has, rightly, taken it upon itself to celebrate Byrd in all his glory. That’s of course great news for us and great news for audiences everywhere! Byrd’s present-day fame is difficult to overstate, but this is an echo of his fame when he was alive. He was most definitely the leading composer in England at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, and continued to publish regularly in the first few decades of the 17th century. His well known status as a recusant Catholic at a time when that was a very dangerous thing to be is the biographical detail with which we are most familiar, but there is more to his life and his music.

Tonight’s programme title and subtitle is a (feeble and probably failing attempt at a) pun on the famous slogan “It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman!” Byrd was indeed a musical superman. While much of his music is incredibly famous now (his Ave verum corpus setting or has Mass for Four Voices) there is an enormous amount which is rarely heard, difficult to perform, and spans many genres and topics. It is our hope that we can bring you some Byrd this evening that you may not have heard before and introduce you to some of the kinds of music that are less familiar to modern audiences.

It is our special privilege to be collaborating this evening with Hamish Dustagheer, Director of Music at Brighton’s wonderful St Bartholomew’s Church. He will be bringing us two sets of solo organ music by Byrd and joining us at the end of the programme to accompany us in two pieces. Byrd was very well known as a leading keyboard composer in his day and his work features heavily in the most famous collections of this music that survive.

In an attempt to give you an idea of the breadth of Byrd’s output in terms of style and genre, our programme this evening will be structured around the 8 printed collections of music Byrd produced during his lifetime, not including the three masses he published in the early to mid 1590s. The final category of his output, that of works that only survive in manuscript, is represented at the very end of the programme. We will present works from these collections in chronological order as well, highlighting how Byrd’s style progressed over the course of his life. These publications can be grouped into two broad categories by language; Byrd published in Latin and English. He did so consistently, in both languages, throughout his life.

Some of Byrd’s most famous Latin works appear in his first publication, the well-known Cantiones Sacrae of 1575. This was in fact the first music book ever published in England and was the joint work of Byrd and his mentor Thomas Tallis. Elizabeth I had shortly before granted them a joint monopoly on printing music and their first use of this right contains music of unparalleled genius by both men. Famous works such as Byrd’s Emendemus in melius, and Tribue, Domine appear in that volume alongside Tallis’ well-known O nata lux, and Te lucis ante terminum settings. We have chosen two stunning pieces to start our programme, Miserere mihi (a piece for the night service of Compline), and Siderum rector (that sets part of a hymn at Matins for Holy Women).

While containing staggeringly beautiful music, the Cantiones Sacrae publication of 1575 was a commercial failure. There are many reasons for this, an important one being that the restrictions on using Latin in the liturgy reduced the size of the market for the publication to a very select group of institutions in England. The international success that Byrd and Tallis were hoping for never materialised.

Byrd waited another 8 years before publishing again and this time chose to publish in English. His Psalmes, Sonnets and Songs of sadnes and pietie of 1588 actually contains only music in the ‘consort song’ genre, originally meant to be performed by one soloist and a group of accompanying players, most often on the viola da gamba. All the parts are texted, however, and it is equally viable to sing the music with an a cappella group or perform it with a mixture of singers and players. Come to me, grief is a deeply touching elegy for the poet and courtier Sir Philip Sydney who died in 1586. Ambitious Love is one of many songs Byrd wrote warning of the dangers of romance. While the facts that the pursuit of Love makes us do silly things, removes us from rationality, and often ends in heartache were all stock themes in poetry and music at the time, Byrd seems especially drawn to these ideas. A happily married man, it is perhaps his general melancholic outlook, very much in evidence in his religious works, that is expressed in his tendency to write ‘warning’ music - again here, as in his Latin works.

Byrd then turned his attention back to writing in Latin, producing another book entitled (confusingly, given his first publication with Tallis) Cantiones Sacrae in 1589. These titles indeed speak to the religious politics of the time, as the contents of these books were meant to be ‘sacred songs’ that could very well be used privately in devotion or as chamber music. These were definitely not, Byrd is telling his reader, books to be used in Catholic worship services! Byrd chose his texts carefully and mixed and matched them so that both he could avoid being accused of writing overtly liturgical music, but also so that he could speak secretly to the recusant community in England. Much of this music decries how Jerusalem (code for England) has become desolate and lost its way. It is from this 1589 volume that Byrd’s famous Ne irascaris work comes. We have chosen to sing Domine, secundum multitudinem, a setting of a single verse from Psalm 93, and In resurrectione tua, in which Byrd destroys any notion that he could only write doleful music, tearing the roof off while rejoicing at Christ’s resurrection.

The solo organ works presented this evening represent three of the genres for which William Byrd was composing for keyboard instruments: dance, sacred, and secular. Many of the pieces featured are taken from the ‘Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’ and ‘My Ladye Nevells Booke’ – two significant volumes, cataloguing the wealth of keyboard music in sixteenth century England. Like much of the music at the time, the choice of instrument is flexible: although likely composed for the virginal or harpsichord, the Fitzwilliam collection is equally at home on the organ with minimal adaptation. Byrd, as a significant and prolific composer of the age, is well represented. The Elizabethan keyboard school – of which Byrd was a follower, refiner, and innovator – established some of the stylistic traits and conventions we see further distilled through the seventeenth century and into the Baroque.

Byrd’s prowess as a performer is best evidenced in the Fantasias. Improvisatory in character, these works provide insight into the virtuosity of early English keyboardists (certainly on a par with their European counterparts!). The Fantasias – like the Toccatas of Byrd’s Italian contemporary, Frescobaldi – are technically demanding, with use of extensive ornamentation, intricate counterpoint, and cadenzas. Behind the showmanship is a rich harmonic language coloured with modal inflections, and a framework which allows the music to continually expand in scale and scope.

The more intimate works share the same vocabulary, but are better suited to their (probably) domestic audiences. An Alman (or Allemande) was a couples’ dance in common time – this form remained popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries featuring, for example, in the suites of Henry Purcell and the partitas of J. S. Bach. ‘The Queenes Alman’, one of Byrd’s best-known works, borrows as its main theme a German melody ‘Von Gott will ich nicht lassen’. We hear Byrd’s frequent juxtaposition of minor and major through increasingly elaborate variations on the theme.

The Miserere in three and four parts pay homage to the sacred works for which Byrd is acclaimed. The works begin in strict polyphony, with the placement of voice parts around a cantus firmus – it is as the music unfolds that more florid keyboard textures flower from these faux choral threads. The instability suggested by the fluid tonal centre, often resulting in unexpected twists of dissonance, is most keenly felt in these works; perhaps echoing the struggles Byrd faced as a Roman Catholic in Protestant England.

Moving back to tracing Byrd’s musical journey through his vocal music publications, Byrd’s Songs of sundrie natures also appeared in 1589. In this publication of English-texted music, Byrd mixes genres as he did in Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs, but this time introduces music for smaller forces, writing for between two and six voices in this one volume. He also includes carols, madrigals, anthems (for use in church services), part songs, and consort songs (for soloists and accompanying players). The breadth of this music is a step change on what had gone before and shows Byrd embracing all kinds of music and not just sacred a cappella polyphony. Our programme tonight contains two sacred compositions from this collection, O Lord my God, and Attend mine humble prayer. We will present both of these collections using a small number of singers, invoking the domestic, chamber music contexts for which this music was written.

Our first half finishes with two more pieces that represent the more familiar Byrd style of sacred, Latin, a cappella motets. Yet another publication called Cantiones Sacrae appeared in 1591 and contains music stylistically similar to the 1589 book. Of the two pieces on tonight’s programme, Miserere mei is perhaps more well known now than Descendit de caelis, but the latter especially is a real masterpiece. Adopting the antiquated technique of a long-note cantus firmus melody in the tenor, this piece draws its text directly from the Sarum rite, the Catholic liturgy practised in England before the Reformation, being a setting of a Matins text for Christmas Day. It could, therefore, be performed within a secret Catholic service, but perhaps is more a tender homage to a bygone era in England, both compositionally and functionally.

Our interval this evening falls at a moment of great change in Byrd’s life. Through the time when the five publications we’ve already encountered were published, Byrd was employed at the Chapel Royal and was therefore based in London and at court. In 1594, however, Byrd moved to the countryside with his family, to Stondon Massey in Essex. It is here that he lived for the remaining three decades of his life, close by to his patrons the Petre family, themselves also recusant Catholics. This move also coincides with a long gap between Byrd’s publications, as he next printed music in 1605 and 1607. (It is also around the time of his move that Byrd’s three mass publications were produced, but because of the secrecy surrounding their publication and distribution it’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly they appeared.) These two Jacobean prints were both entitled Gradualia, a word that signalled Byrd’s complete disregard for the discretion of his earlier publications. These books indeed contain works specifically chosen to completely fulfil the requirements of the Roman Catholic liturgy at the main feasts of the year. Given that life for practising Catholics was about to get much more difficult because of the Gunpowder Plot, it is perhaps no wonder that surviving copies of the 1605 edition of the first book are extremely rare. These Gradualia, therefore, would most likely have been first performed in secret, and we again return to our small groups to represent this. Pange lingua is a famous hymn sung at the feast of Corpus Christi and during Holy Week. From the 1607 volume, we have chosen Vidimus stellam, and Surge illuminare, both drawn from the music written for Epiphany.

Byrd’s final publication appeared a few years later and it is possible that this book represented somewhat of a ‘retrospective’ collection. Choosing a confusingly similar name to that of his very first solo publication of 1588, Byrd’s Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets of 1611 contains another very wide range of music, including in fact some entirely instrumental works. He again writes for a range of forces, including his own solo vocal work, and addresses disparate topics. To highlight this, we have chosen to sing his magnificent Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles, an expansive, exciting, and extroverted exclamation of joy, and In Winter cold, in which Byrd extols the virtues of… ants. That these two pieces exist in the same volume tells you all you need to know about this last publication. Byrd here sums up his skill in all its variation and presents it to the reader as a swan song. While his precise birthdate is unclear, Byrd was in his 70s when this publication was produced, by the standards of the time a very old man.

Hamish Dustagheer joins us for the final two pieces on tonight’s programme. In these we touch on yet another important strand of Byrd’s composition, his English liturgical music. Strangely, Byrd chose not to publish this music, but he wrote a large quantity and his Third Service is less well known now than his Short Service, Second Service, or mighty Great Service. All of this music, however, has entered the regular rotation at most English cathedrals and this Third Service, of which we will sing both the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis movements, is one of his more elegant and quietly joyous works.

To complete our programme, we sing one of Byrd’s most famous pieces, but one with a unique and special twist. Byrd’s O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth is one of his most well-loved English anthems. Tonight, we will sing this music, but to a slightly different text: O Lord, make thy servant Charles! Given the events happening in London next weekend, we believe this to be especially apt. Further, this is not cleverness on our part. The piece we sing tonight comes from a set of manuscript partbooks currently housed in Peterhouse College, Cambridge, known as the ‘Peterhouse Caroline partbooks’. These were not produced at Peterhouse but instead were collected there in the 19th century. They were originally produced between 1625 and 1640, during the reign of Charles I. The process of updating the text of music mentioning the name of a monarch was commonplace at the time, and this version of the famous Elizabethan anthem, seems like a perfect way to end our concert of music by Byrd that’s a little bit off the beaten path.

Programme note by Greg Skidmore and Hamish Dustagheer.

Texts and translations

Miserere mihi, Domine
Et exaudi orationem meam.

Have pity on me, Lord,
And hear my prayer.

Siderum rector, Deus alme nostris,
Parce jam culpis, vitia remittens,
Quo tibi puri resonemus almum
Pectoris hymnum.
Gloria Patri genitᴂque proli,
Et tibi, compar utriusque semper Spiritus alme.
Deus unus omni tempore sᴂcli. Amen.

Ruler of the stars, God, giver of life to us,
Now spare us from guilt, cancelling our faults,
So that, we may sing out to you the gracious hymn of a loving heart.
Glory to the Father and his true-born son
And to you, always equal to both –
The gracious [Holy] Spirit,
One God for all of time everlasting. Amen.

Domine, secundum multitudinem
dolorum meorum in corde meo,
Consolationes tuᴂ lᴂtificaverunt
animam meam.

Lord, in proportion to the quantity
of my griefs In my heart,
Your comforts have filled
my soul with joy.

In resurrectione tua, Domine, alleluia,
Lᴂtentur cœli et exultet terra.

In your resurrection, Lord, alleluia
May the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice.

Miserere mei, Deus
Secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.
Et secundum multitudinem
miserationum tuarum
Dele iniquitatem meam.

Have pity on me, God
In accordance with your great compassion.
And in accordance with the great extent
of your mercifulness
Wipe away my sin.

Descendit de cᴂlis,
missus ab arce Patris;
Introivit per aurem
virginis in regionem nostram,
Indutus stola purpurea.
Et exivit per auream portam,
Lux et decus universᴂ
fabricᴂ mundi.

He has come down from the heavens,
sent from the Father’s citadel;
He has entered through [by speaking to]
a virgin’s ear into our world,
Clothed in a purple robe.
And he has gone out through a golden door,
The light and glory
of the whole fabric of the universe.

Pange lingua gloriosi
corporis mysterium
Sanguinis pretiosi
quem in mundi pretium
Fructus ventris generosi
Rex effudit gentium.

Proclaim, tongue,
the mystery of the glorious body,
Of the precious blood,
the price and fruit of a unique womb
which the King bestowed on
the nations of the world.

Nobis datus, nobis natus,
ex intacta Virgine
Et in mundo conversatus
sparso verbi semine:
Sui moras incolatus
miro clausit ordine.

Given to us and born for us
from a chaste virgin,
And brought down to the world with the
scattered seed of the word;
By his span of life here he brought our waiting
to an end remarkably and properly.

In supremᴂ nocte cenᴂ
recumbens cum fratribus
Observata lege plene
cibis in legalibus
Cibum turbᴂ Duodenᴂ
se dat suis manibus.

On the night of the last supper,
dining with his close companions
Once the ritual had been observed in full
with the permitted foods
He gave food to each of the group of Twelve
with his own hands.

Verbum caro, panem verum,
verbum carnem efficit
Fitque sanguis Christi merum:
et si sensus deficit
Adfirmandum cor sincerum
sola fides sufficit.

The Word made flesh makes the true bread
and the word into flesh
And the blood of Christ becomes pure wine;
and if resolution fails
Faith alone is enough to strengthen
a pure heart.

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
veneremur cernui
Et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui;
Praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui.

Therefore I have realised that
we should worship only the Sacrament
And that the ancient text
should yield to the new worship;
Faith will be the best guarantee
against failure of resolve.

Genitori genitoque
laus et jubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
sit et benedictio
Procedenti ab utroque
compar sit laudatio. Amen.

To the Father and the Son
may there be praise and rejoicing,
worship, honour, glory,
and also blessing
And to the [Spirit] coming from both,
may there be equal praise. Amen.

Vidimus stellam ejus in Oriente,
et venimus cum muneribus adorare

We have seen his star in the East
and have come with gifts to worship
the Lord.

Surge illuminare, Jerusalem,
quia venit lumen tuum,
et gloria Domini super te orta est.

Arise, shine out, Jerusalem,
for your light has come
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.