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Walking on Eggs

How a court musician kept his head.

Amanda Lane

DEVOTED: To McCarthy, Byrd’s life is as engrossing as his music.

By Cynthia Haven

Kerry McCarthy fell in love with William Byrd over iced coffee in Portland, Ore. She was a freshman at Reed College. He was the foremost composer of the English Renaissance. The 18-year-old alto was smitten as she sat in a café and read through Byrd’s Corpus Christi mass, preparing for a choral performance. At the time, she was a history major with scant musical training, but going through that score was like entering another world. “I was absolutely knocked over by it,” says McCarthy, PhD ’03. “This was some of the most beautiful stuff I ever heard—I didn’t yet realize this was one jewel in a whole structure. I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday.”

Byrd has been her passion ever since. She switched to a music degree then came to Stanford to study with William Mahrt, renowned for his work in early liturgical music. In 2000, she conducted Byrd’s massive, yearlong Gradualia, music for the annual cycle of Christian feast days, at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto. Now an assistant professor of music at Duke and director of an early music ensemble there, McCarthy has also found Byrd’s life and times (1540-1623) an enduring fascination—and a source of fresh insight into his music.

He was the first Englishman to write madrigals, the most distinguished English contrapuntist of his time and a superb performer on the organ and virginals. But today he is most famous for his liturgical music—and much of it was written for the Catholic Church, banned under Queen Elizabeth I during the Counter-Reformation, even as he worked within the sovereign’s Chapel Royal.

The Catholic Church’s response to the ravages of the Protestant Reformation was more complex than often assumed, McCarthy notes. While the Counter-Reformation usually evokes images of the Inquisition, dungeons and black-velvet-clad Spaniards with oversize crucifixes around their necks, the Church also instigated renewal across Europe. In Rome, there were lavish public processions and new churches built.

But not in England. For Catholics there, these were dangerous times. As Elizabeth consolidated her power, her retaliations against stalwart Catholics became harsher. Priests were executed in a grisly manner, and people who attended their secret masses risked their lives. Those who refused to attend Protestant services were subject to hefty recusancy fines that could impoverish families.

Amazingly, Byrd avoided persecution and death. “He was a stubborn lifelong Catholic under the Protestant state church,” says McCarthy, who will publish a book on him next year. “His life was a mixture of protest and compromise.” In retrospect, he seemed to be under a lucky star or receiving tacit royal exemption. Or both.

McCarthy is organizing an international conference at Duke in November on recent developments in Byrd research and on new ways of reading and hearing his music. She wasn’t the first to discover the contradictions in Byrd’s life, but according to a leading Byrd scholar, Joseph Kerman of UC-Berkeley, “she’s pushing it further, she’s making real discoveries. She’s one of the best young scholars interested in Renaissance music that I know about.”

McCarthy has revisited the prefaces Byrd wrote to his music, and considered previously unexplored sources. She has also studied the texts he set to music, identifying their origins and proposing new explanations for some of them. For example, in an article published last year, she discusses a composition that turns out to be a setting of a long monologue attributed to St. Augustine. “As a brilliant, stubborn, introspective sort of character, Byrd seems to be a good match with Augustine,” she says.

The Byrd her work portrays is certainly brave. One example: the saintly, brilliant and much-revered Jesuit scholar Edward Campion was hanged, drawn and quartered in December 1581 after an intensive manhunt. Henry Walpole—who converted to Catholicism after he was splashed by Campion’s blood at the scaffold—wrote a poem to commemorate the event. Its publisher was exiled and his ears cut off, and Walpole met the same fate as Campion. Yet the audacious Byrd reprinted the first stanza of Walpole’s poem, under the title of its first line: “Why Do I Use My Paper, Ink, and Pen?” Setting it to music, he added two verses. Without consequence.

Byrd’s two-volume Gradualia, published in 1605 and 1607, was “completely illegal,” says McCarthy. So was his 1591 setting of the “Salve Regina,” (Hail, Holy Queen), a theme “strictly forbidden by Elizabeth.” How did he get away with it? Certainly, the quality of his music helped. Moreover, says McCarthy, “People were not executed for singing songs like this; they were executed for going to mass.” Nonetheless, it was “risky subject matter.”

In some cases, Byrd argued that he was only setting Biblical words to music. But his choices of text were significant. For example, “Tu Es Petrus” (You Are Peter) reminded people of the tradition that legitimized papal authority—a possibly treasonous assertion of an authority higher than the throne. And while other Catholics were having books and music published abroad or on secret presses, Byrd was publishing openly with Thomas East in London.

Why did Queen Elizabeth turn a blind eye? “That’s one question I’d love to have a straight answer for,” says McCarthy. “I’m sure she knew he was working both sides. Byrd and his family refused to go to Protestant services until the end of his life. He was using his [royal] pension to pay back recusancy fines.”

McCarthy has one explanation: the queen “knew a good thing when she saw it. Byrd was one of the best things to cross her path,” she says. After all, she reasons, “Albert Einstein didn’t have to wear socks. Even in a tuxedo—no socks. No one is going to question it when dealing with a cultural treasure.”

With the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, Catholics hoped the nation’s religious policy would ease. Instead, it appeared that King James I’s persecutions would be even more severe. Then, in 1605, a few Catholic conspirators planned to blow up the King and the House of Lords in the notorious Gunpowder Plot. The plot was foiled, the conspirators executed, but, according to McCarthy, “it was the same kind of watershed event for Jacobean England as 9-11 is for us.” Under the Tudors, the state religion had changed every 10 years. Now Catholics realized “they were in it for the long haul. They started forging their own culture, their own identity.”

By then, Byrd had retired from court. In 1593 he moved with his family to the small village of Stondon Massey in Essex, known to be a Roman Catholic enclave. “People have said his flight into obscurity suggested he was trying to get away from something,” McCarthy says. “I think he was trying to go towards something he wanted. He knew what court life was like. He wasn’t physically safer [in Essex],” she adds, since “the court tended not to be subjected to religious police raids.”

Byrd gave up the mournful music that had been his signature—the music that made him, in McCarthy’s words, “probably the angriest Renaissance composer I know of.” In his last three decades, he turned to one thing the Catholics hadn’t lost: the liturgy. “He stepped off the treadmill. In a preface, he wrote, ‘This is for posterity.’ It’s a fairly cheeky statement, kind of a grandiose thing to say, unless what you are doing is going to stand the test of time. In the Renaissance, they went through trends almost as fast as we do.”

If Campion was the great hero of the English Counter-Reformation, Byrd was a different kind of hero, perhaps more heartening to a younger generation tired of blood and persecution. “They needed a role model who lived for his faith, instead of just dying for his faith,” says McCarthy. Byrd wasn’t a martyr and didn’t want to be; he was successful, brilliant and defiant.

Byrd died in relative obscurity and was buried in an unmarked grave. He received a royal pension until the day he died. Now he has an unlikely champion in a young 21st-century scholar who is studying how he kept a tight hold on royal favor—and on his head—through maneuvers as complex as any of his motets.

CYNTHIA HAVEN frequently writes on arts and letters for Stanford.

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