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The Renaissance Singers perform in Master Byrd on Saturday 21 October at Ingatestone Hall in Essex. 



How to commemorate a composer with more than some greatest hits? Brean Hammond describes the parallels between Byrd and Shakespeare that inspired his new play.

Drawing of Ingatestone Hall (undated)

Master Byrd began as a project designed for our local early music ensemble Melismata, in which I sing tenor - possibly with more enthusiasm than talent, but I’m chairperson so I have made myself indispensable. Choirs up and down the land were suffering from the Covid fallout. In 2020-21, choristers were sometimes treated as the most dangerous people on the planet! How far might a soprano top A propel particles? Many choirs did not return in pre-Covidian numbers. People had got used to just not going out. Other activities usurped the space previously put aside for singing. So, we needed a really engrossing idea for Melismata’s resurrection.

2023 would be the 400th anniversary of William Byrd’s death. Our conductor Philip Robinson and I agreed that we’d ‘do some Byrd’, but every early music choir would do Byrd, so what could we do that was distinctive? We didn’t want just to do the playlist of Byrd’s greatest hits, but we didn’t want not to do that playlist either. Both Philip and I have had experience of scripting words-and-music pieces, and we decided that I should go away and write something and we should begin a collaboration. 


From here, it becomes more personal because Master Byrd results from the confluence of two relatively recent spheres of interest in my life. When the century was very young – about six years old – I happened to say to my wife Janette that I would like nothing more than to be able to sing properly. Janette booked a set of lessons with an inspiring local teacher, who then insisted that I join a local choir; and a long and winding road began. Early music proved to be my greatest love and in 2019, I was a founder member of Melismata.


At around the same time I was also becoming a Renaissance scholar more or less by accident. My day job was Professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Nottingham, where I was hired for my credentials in 18th-century writing. It happened that I came across a play performed in 1727 called Double Falshood. Its ‘author’, one Lewis Theobald, claimed that this play was a hitherto lost masterpiece by Shakespeare – a claim comprehensively ridiculed by Theobald’s peers. But after some study, I came to the conclusion that this play actually did possess Shakespeare’s DNA, though it was not a single-authored play but a collaboration with John Fletcher and more than once revised. I set out on the road to prove that, and this relocated me in Shakespeare’s era, requiring a comprehensive programme of reading in that period and leading to my edition of Double Falshood in the Arden Shakespeare series (2010). 

‘Exploring what Shakespeare tries to do with ‘resurrection’ in The Winter’s Tale became for me a kind of metaphor for understanding what Byrd might have been trying to do with his music.’

William Byrd's signature

So you have early music and you have Shakespeare. Byrd pre-existed Shakespeare, lived every year that Shakespeare lived, outlived him and died in the year that the celebrated ‘First Folio’ collection of Shakespeare’s plays was published in 1623. For both, the King James Bible of 1611 was a landmark publication. Byrd certainly must have known Shakespeare’s plays and there is some available evidence that he actually did. That Byrd was and remained a Catholic is beyond doubt. That Shakespeare did also is not the prevailing scholarly opinion, even though a document found by a bricklayer in Shakespeare’s house in 1757 appears to have been a testament of his father’s Catholic faith. 


The germination of Master Byrd is a desire to put those two titanic ‘creatives’ (as they might now be called) into imaginative synergy with one another. Exploring what Shakespeare tries to do with ‘resurrection’ in The Winter’s Tale (c.1611) became for me a kind of metaphor for understanding what Byrd might have been trying to do with his music. What fascinates me about the religious belief of the period 1538-1620, between the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Pilgrim Fathers, is the interplay of fluidity and rigidity. People tried to protect themselves against uncertainty and doubt, it seems to me, by taking up stiff-necked and absolutist postures that many of them later abandoned for a combination of worldly and theological motives. The central mystery of Byrd’s life is of course how he managed to compose great Catholic Masses in a proscribed language (Latin), when all around him Catholics were being tortured, hanged and burned for holding to the old faith. I explore that in the play. My answers aren’t any better than anyone else’s, but I don’t have to footnote them and can use artistic licence. 


From the outset I conceived a 90-minute piece without interval: I didn’t want to interrupt the onward and gathering momentum of the whole. I wanted more music than words, say 55 minutes of music to 35 minutes of the spoken word. The spoken material is thickly-textured, so I figured that five or six minutes was the longest stretch of concentration the audience would give me before needing to be ravished by the sheer beauty of the music. There would only be one actor, who would tell the story of the significant phases of Byrd’s life in a series of six monologues, each scene or phase motivating up to three pieces of music appropriate to the context and/or date. I’ll say a little more about the music selection, but for the moment let me concentrate on the language. 

‘I’m asking the audience to think itself into the belief systems out of which Byrd’s music arises: to see the world as Byrd might have seen it.’

Ingatestone Hall

Byrd wouldn’t go around saying ‘gadzooks’. Indeed, ‘gadzookery’ would be kept to a minimum. On the other hand, I didn’t want to use anachronistic language so I checked every word that I thought might be too modern in the Oxford English Dictionary. Relatively small and unobtrusive grammatical interventions would be enough to defamiliarize the language, e.g. ‘Then Paulina says that she can make the statue TO come to life.’ Just the infinitive construction ‘to come’ is enough to make the language a little strange.  Some unfamiliar items of vocabulary are part of the challenge that the play offers its audience. And the play is challenging because there are unfamiliar concepts as well as words. I’m asking the audience to think itself into the belief systems out of which Byrd’s music arises: to see the world as Byrd might have seen it. 


To an extent I think of each scene in musical terms. Each has, for me anyway, a different ‘sonority’, a different tempo, a different key. But each also has its key changes. That takes us into the music selection. Some pieces serve a structural dramatic function in the play, for example Ne Irascaris and Civitas Sancti Tui published in the Cantiones Sacrae collection of 1589. The Latin words of this motet contain coded references to Catholic persecution. (‘Your holy city has become a wilderness. / Zion has become a wilderness. / Jerusalem has been made desolate’. Substitute ‘England’ for Zion and ‘London’ for Jerusalem.) Lullaby and Sing Joyfully are other examples of pieces with a structural function: the former gives us accessible, folksy Byrd, while the latter is the song that he wrote for the baptism of King James I’s daughter and perhaps bought him his protection in the year of the Gunpowder Plot.


Other pieces are in there because we just must have them (the four-part Mass), or because, as with Retire My Soul, they encapsulate perfectly the meditative, ageing Byrd’s state of mind. Philip was keen to have four, five and six-part pieces to represent different sonorities. And we needed a solo item to provide lyrical expressiveness in the scene where Campion’s martyrdom propels the dramatic emotion. And we wanted some non-Byrd music. At one point, we contrast Byrd with his pupil Morley, who composed in the madrigal style, for comic effect. Parsons and Ravenscroft are briefly referenced. And Tallis: the figure whose achievement haunts Byrd in the play.


I sent the outline of this idea to David Allinson as a project that might interest the Renaissance Singers because alongside Philip Robinson, I find it difficult to imagine anyone better qualified to bring the script and the music to fruition. The hope expressed by all three of us must be that, in the words of the play’s final scene, the experience reaches the audience’s body and blood: it helps them understand, but more than that, it makes them feel. 



Brean Hammond is an author, editor, and Professor of English at the University of Nottingham.

The Renaissance Singers perform in Master Byrd on Saturday 21 October at Ingatestone Hall in Essex. 
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