Music: A Catholic outlaw in his own country: Bayan Northcott celebrates the still-mysterious Elizabethan genius of William Byrd

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WE KNOW neither where nor exactly when he was born. Since his first appointment at 19 or 20 was as a cathedral choirmaster in Lincoln, it has been surmised he was also raised there. But in order to study with Tallis, he must have spent at least some of his boyhood in London.

The documentation of his long maturity is equally patchy. The only surviving portrait is a dubious engraving of 18th-century provenance. And while a couple of letters remain in his fine, slashing italic hand, we have no musical autographs at all. In his last will, drawn up some eight months before his death in July 1623, he described himself as 'in the 80th yeare of myne age' - which means that 1993 is almost certainly his 450th anniversary. At present, the musical world seems more preoccupied with the tercentenary of Purcell's death, still over two years ahead. Yet William Byrd surely stands among the half-dozen finest composers this country has produced. Enthusiasts would argue he was the greatest of all.

There was, indeed, something Bach-like about his comprehensiveness - about his apparent determination to master, develop and raise to definitive expression almost every received technique, medium and form, whether sacred or secular, of his native tradition. But, as in Bach, this fundamental conservatism precluded neither a bold idiosyncrasy nor a strongly progressive impulse. The early outputs of each include certain daring, even experimental procedures they were to spend a lifetime refining; and each was prepared to enrich his resources from other, more up-to-date European traditions, where they felt their own was deficient - Byrd being the first English composer fully to absorb the techniques of High Renaissance Italy.

They also seem to have shared a certain teasing ambivalence to their more fashionable pupils: Bach appropriating turns from the galant style he derided in the work of his sons, and Byrd trouncing the young madrigal composers of the 1590s with a dazzling demonstration in This sweet and merry month of May, before turning back to the older, strophic song tradition he really preferred. But there remains a basic spiritual distinction. Where Bach's majestic stability was evidently founded on a oneness with the Lutheran culture in which he worked, Byrd's restless variety was surely fomented by finding himself from his mid-teens a religious outlaw in his own land.

To practise the Catholic faith in Elizabethan and Jacobean England meant at best to suffer recurrent house searches and fines. That Byrd escaped anything worse was doubtless due to his willingness also to write Anglican service music for the Chapel Royal, and probably to regal protection. But he cannot have made things easier for himself by his determination to get his Latin church music published. In 1575 he and Tallis managed to secure from the Crown the monopoly for printing music in England, which they immediately celebrated by bringing out a resplendent joint collection of Latin Cantiones dedicated to the Queen. And Byrd published two further collections in 1589 and 1591. Much of the music, in its elegiac elaboration, seems haunted by the abandonment of the old Sarum rite of English Catholicism and the composers - Taverner, Sheppard, Tallis himself - who had served it: never more so than in the grave antiphonies of high and low voices in the motet Ne irascaris Domine at the words 'Sion deserta facta est'.

But by his late forties, Byrd's contacts in recusant circles had evidently put him in touch with the ideals of the Counter-Reformation. The three celebrated Latin masses he had published without title pages in the early 1590 are conspicuously clearer in word setting; plainer, if no less poignant, in style. This evolution was to culminate in the two volumes of Gradualia published between 1605 and 1610. This vast collection of choral sections comprises nothing less than a kind of sacred musical kit, from which, by a process of permutational assembly, appropriate masses can be extracted for every special service of the church year. Since the project collided with the anti-papist scare of the gunpowder plot, it is difficult to know which to admire more: Byrd's brain power in devising the scheme, or his courage in persisting with its publication.

In his long essay accompanying the new 450th anniversary double-CD reissue of Byrd recordings by the Tallis Scholars, John Milsom makes much of the contrast between Byrd's relatively ceremonial Anglican music, represented by a radiant reading under Peter Phillips of the Great Service, and the personal fervour of the Latin masses - a point that might emerge more strongly had the latter been recorded by solo voices as the Hilliard Ensemble did them some nine years ago. Such tensions are less obvious among the array of Byrd's secular or semi-secular solo and part-songs, but the range of tone and procedure is scarcely less wide: from the eloquence of the famous consort-accompanied lament for the death of Tallis, Ye sacred Muses, to the vernal cross- rhythms of Though Amaryllis dance in green. As for the fantasias, In Nomines and variations comprising the 30-odd items of consort music itself, scholars and performers have been delighted to discover sly vernacular hints of such tunes as Greensleeves interwoven with the most intricate flights of contrapuntal artifice.

Yet if Byrd had left nothing except his 140-odd keyboard pieces, he would still rank as a major composer - the first in Europe to realise and develop the full potential of the medium. Indeed, the great sequence of ornate pavans and galliards that runs through the output has been compared by one of its most searching interpreters - the harpsichordist, Davitt Moroney - to Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. The ground covered in his variations from a boisterous early set such as Sellingers Round to the elegant sophistication of the late O mistress mine is immense, and among all the other preludes and antiphons there are some striking one-offs, such as the volatile dance fantasia The Barley Break, or The Bells, an elaboration of chime-patterns over a hypnotically tolling two-note figure that qualifies as one of Western music's earliest and still most interesting portents of minimalism.

Maybe the ultimate challenge of Byrd is that there is simply too much of him; not just in quantity, which can be matched by other Renaissance composers, but overwhelmingly in quality. Apart from a few stiff early pieces, there appears to be no routine Byrd; almost everything is freshly worked in its own terms. To the larger public, the much-recorded Latin masses, a handful of anthems such as the jubilant Sing joyfully unto God and the plangent Ave verum corpus - both included in the Tallis Scholars collection - plus such widely anthologised keyboard pieces as the Earl of Salisbury Pavan and Galliards, would seem sustenance enough. Yet virtually the whole of his output is readily, if not cheaply, available in print from Stainer & Bell. Faber launched an authoritative three-volume critical survey some 15 years ago with fine studies of the Latin settings and instrumental music by Joseph Kerman and Oliver Neighbour - though, alas, Philip Brett's completing volume on the English vocal music is nowhere in sight. And among current recordings one might mention Fretwork's versions of the viol consort music on the Virgin label and the Gradualia Book 1 of Gavin Turner's William Byrd Choir on Hyperion. This listener - fascinated over 30 years ago by pioneering keyboard and choral discs from Thurston Dart and Michael Howard's Renaissance Singers - has been exploring the output piecemeal ever since. There still seems no end to the discoveries.

Tallis Scholars/Phillips: Gimell

CDGIM 343/4