Will's World

By Phillips, Peter | Musical Times, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Will's World


Phillips, Peter, Musical Times


Will's world The world of William Byrd: musicians, merchants and magnates John Harley Ashgate (Farnham, 2010); xvii, 3o6pp; £60, $124.95. ISBN 978 o 7546 0497 6.

CONTINUING FROM WHERE HE LEFT OFF in his William Byrd: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (Ashgate, rev. 1999) and in many articles since, John Harley has returned to the archives to fill out what can be known of Byrd 's life. As before he has done this in exhaustive and exemplary detail, here concentrating on Byrd's family situation, alongside information about the 'merchants and magnates' who also surrounded him. At the outset Harley quotes JO Halliwell: 'By the incessant collection of minutiae, information of real value is almost invariably elicited'. Equally apt would have been the great Austrian film director Max Ophiils: 'Details, details, details! The most insignificant, the most unobtrusive among them are often the most evocative, characteristic and even decisive.' Either way the advice is followed by Harley to the last jot.

The book comes in the form of short sections, each representing a line of thought or a useful entry in the source material. There is no consistent attempt to link them to a background narrative: two sections dedicated to Byrd himself are separated by two others, one dedicated to the merchants of the title, the other to the magnates, some of whom seem to have little relevance to Byrd or his life, though they do help to explain the world he lived in. One of the more revealing parts of Harley's analysis is that

Nothing illustrates Byrd 's facility as a composer better than the time and energy he was able to devote to matters other than the writing of music. Among them was the cultivation of well-heeled patrons, friends, and acquaintances. Most of the friends we know about were Catholics, and it seems likely that, fairly early in his life, Byrd was admitted to the circles in which the Catholic nobility moved. The willingness of these men to assist Byrd, and to accept him as a companion, conveys much about his personality and demeanour. No matter how little they may have stood on their position in society, it undoubtedly required more than Byrd 's faith and musical abilities for him to be accepted as an intimate. His considerable accomplishments must have included social acumen, skills and graces of a high order.

With this as our starting-point we are then introduced to the biographies of seven such grandees.

In the 'Merchants' section Harley provides sketches of leading figures in the City of London. These are more relevant to the careers of Byrd's two older brothers, Symond and John, than to William's, but no stone is left unturned and the detail about Byrd's close family is well worth having. Harley has elsewhere described how John Byrd became a major shipowner, whose vessels travelled to Brazil, the Caribbean and West Africa. They also took part in defeating the Spanish Armada and capturing the Madre de Dios, no doubt bringing the Byrd family into good standing with the queen. Symond Byrd lived and worked as a merchant in the City, dying in 1579, 44 years before William. Both Symond and John were choristers at St Paul's. There is no firm evidence that William followed them -it has traditionally been assumed that he was a boy at the Chapel Royal - though Harley concludes that he must have done. …

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