Sleuthing Out the Decidedly Odd Books of William Byrd:

When I heard Duke Musicology Professor Kerry Robin McCarthy’s talk “From the library of a Renaissance composer,” I was fascinated. The talk was delivered at a lecture given to the Sarum Seminar, which is put on by a group of medieval studies enthusiasts in the San Francisco Bay Area. In her talk, McCarthy recounted a series of happy discoveries she made as she began to track down what turned out to be a decidedly odd collection of books from the library of William Byrd.

Byrd, as you may know, was a brilliant Catholic composer of the Renaissance in England whose music is still performed today. Even the little choir I belong to sings his Mass for Three Voices frequently and his Ave Verum Corpus motet, among others of his works.

Byrd’s life was full of paradoxes. He worked for Queen Elizabeth as a court musician and was prominent among Elizabeth’s Protestant courtiers, but he also composed music that he and his harried Catholic co-religionists would sing at Masses, which they were forced to celebrate in secret, in fear of a knock at the door.

Portrait commonly (but mistakenly) believed to be of Byrd. According to McCarthy, "There is no evidence that the well-known engraved portrait of Byrd is anything but a fanciful eighteenth-century artist’s rendition of an Elizabethan gentleman." This engraving by Gerard van der Guch, after a drawing by Nicola Francesco Haym, c.1729, is in the British Museum.

Portrait commonly (but mistakenly) believed to be of Byrd. According to McCarthy, “There is no evidence that the well-known engraved portrait of Byrd is anything but a fanciful eighteenth-century artist’s rendition of an Elizabethan gentleman.” This engraving by Gerard van der Guch, after a drawing by Nicola Francesco Haym, c.1729, is in the British Museum.

Kerry McCarthy fell in love with Byrd while singing the composer’s music in a chorus when she was a freshman at Reed. She switched majors from history to music, and she went on to earn a PhD in music from Stanford. McCarthy has been teaching and singing music at Duke for about 10 years now, and she is so well known for her Byrd scholarship that she was chosen by Oxford University Press to write a biography of Byrd for their Master Musicians series.
Byrd, by Kerry McCarthy, from the Oxford University Master Musicians Series

Byrd, by Kerry McCarthy, from the Oxford University Master Musicians Series

Professor McCarthy is a witty writer and raconteur. I became acquainted with her when I sang Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony with the St. Ann choir at a Palo Alto, CA church for several years under the direction of Stanford Professor William Mahrt, who is also president of the Church Music Association of America and editor of the journal, “Sacred Music.” While McCarthy was working on her PhD, she sang – she has a striking voice — in Mahrt’s choir. As part of her graduate work, she directed the choir in singing through the Propers of all the works of Byrd for the main feasts of the liturgical year from his Gradualia, sung where the music is meant to be sung, in the Mass. Now she often returns to Palo Alto and sings with choir while on breaks from her Duke teaching duties.

(For more about the achievements of the St. Ann choir, see “How The St. Ann Choir Kept Chant and Polyphony Alive for 50 Years”, and for more about Byrd’s double life, see “William Byrd’s Secret Catholic Masterpieces”, which is based on Professor McCarthy’s biography.)

When I ran into McCarthy some time after the Sarum Seminar, at the home of mutual friends, I asked her for a copy of her talk. I also told her that what she described that day reminded me of a certain type of nonfiction book I’m quite fond of, the kind that is a combination of history, culture, and detective story. The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece came to mind, because it is a book about the search for a long lost Caravaggio painting by a persistent young scholar of art history. While The Lost Painting is about art detection, Kerry McCarthy’s talk could be said to be about book detection.

McCarthy remarked that what she did was only a slight thing compared to seeking a lost Caravaggio, and I agreed, but I said I enjoyed it like an intellectual mystery story nonetheless. “It’s just one of the little talks I give, just incidental.” “Incidental?” I asked, and then answered my own question. “Oh, you mean because it only describes the process by which you did the research, and not the end result.” “Yes,” she agreed, that was what she meant.

Incidental or not, I think the process itself is as fascinating as the contribution to Byrd scholarship that resulted.

The way McCarthy tells it, it’s a suspenseful but not at all boastful tale, in which she ferrets out and follows one clue after another — until she is finally able to compile the largest extant collection of books from any one Renaissance composer’s library.

First: she finds a reference to a book signed by William Byrd in a Victorian journal

“So how did this whole project start?” McCarthy said. It started “while I was browsing through old magazines looking for something else.” McCarthy was looking through issues of a 19th-century journal called Notes and Queries, which is, she said, “more or less the low-tech equivalent to an internet discussion group: people send in hundreds of short posts every month, asking obscure questions (those are the Queries) or offering unusual bits of information (those are the Notes). . . .

“90% of the stuff in any issue will be totally irrelevant to any single reader; 10% will be interesting or at least thought-provoking; and once in a long while, there will be the piece of information you’ve been looking for all your life.”

The once in a long while entry that caught McCarthy’s eye was made in 1867 by a music collector and antiquarian named Edward Rimbault, who wrote: “I have a curious little volume in my library, with the autograph signature of ‘Wm. Byrd’ on the title-page. It is a violent attack on the Roman Catholic religion by one ‘J. Hull’. What was Byrd’s reason for possessing this volume, and furthermore identifying it with himself by his signature on the title-page? I suspect it was to blind those who came to search among his papers.”

Scholars, according to McCarthy, are familiar with this Rimbault as “something of a forger and a liar,” among Victorian Tudor-music revival circles, “but this seemed worth following up on.”

Second, she makes a trip to Princeton to see it for herself

McCarthy went on, “The ‘curious little volume’ Rimbault described was a book called The Unmasking of the Politike Atheist, published in 1602. . . . 1602 was certainly a plausible date for a book owned by Byrd.” Six copies of the book survived, and McCarthy was able to locate the copy that had the Byrd signature at the Princeton Theological Seminary. So she got on a commuter plane to Princeton.

Byrd's signature from one of the books he owned, titled The Unmasking of the Politike Atheist

Byrd’s signature from one of the books he owned, titled The Unmasking of the Politike Atheist

“It wasn’t all that rare for Renaissance people to write their names on title pages, and there was nothing to say we had the right Byrd. There was also the annoying fact that 18th and 19th-century scholars did a lot of faking, forging, and stretching of facts to suit their purposes.” Contributing to her skepticism was the fact that the book supposedly owned by Byrd was “a violent attack on the Catholic religion,” which would make it quite a curious book for a staunch Catholic like Byrd to own.

“I went to the Theological Seminary and looked at the signature on the title page. Then I compared it with a couple of Byrd’s authentic signatures from a legal document he wrote out in 1598, just a few years before this book came out.” She continued, “They’re more or less the same. These signatures from 1598 weren’t even discovered until the 20th century, so there’s no way Rimbault or his friends in the book trade could have copied them. So what we have here is a book signed by our composer.”

McCarthy discussed some of the speculations about why Byrd would have a book like that at all, and then said, “The most plausible conclusion may be a simpler one: he was caught up in the religious controversies of his time, just as so many other people were, and he was prepared to read even violent attacks on his own beliefs and practices.”

This virulently anti-Catholic image, which is subtitled “against the wicked governance of papal dignity,” shows a “seven-headed and goat-legged decidedly female monster shitting out a pope.” It is from The New Arrival of the Three Graces into Anglia, one of the anti-Catholic books from Byrd’s library

Third, she begins to trace a paper trail through book dealers and auction houses

McCarthy said that she’d figured she’d just chanced upon a nice piece of Byrd-related trivia and filed it away. “Then two things happened. The first thing: I found an entry in an old Victorian auction catalog describing precisely this book, ‘Byrd’ signature and all. . . .All of a sudden I realized what would be the key to the rest of this project: almost any Elizabethan book that hadn’t been burned or used for fishwrap would have belonged to a whole string of people over the centuries, and it would probably have left a paper trail through various book dealers and auction houses. . . . Not too much later, the second thing happened. I got an email from someone in an archive in London, with an image attached. . . . It was the title page of another book, with another signature in the same handwriting and exactly the same format: ‘William’ to the left of the printer’s ornament, ‘Byrd’ to the right.”

Realizing that there were more books out there from Byrd’s library that she could probably locate by poring over records of book dealers and catalogs from auctions, McCarthy began her Byrd library project in earnest.

“The next year or so was certainly an interesting one. I went through more Victorian auction catalogs than I want to think about, and wrote an appalling number of unsolicited letters to librarians and archivists. The signed books and pamphlets started showing up, sometimes in the most unlikely places. At one point I was so amazed that I dropped my laptop on a concrete floor.”

Fourth, the jigsaw puzzle pieces start to take shape

McCarthy found even more hints to the extent of Byrd’s library. Byrd inscribed other clues on the title pages in addition to his signature. “Sometimes he wrote exact dates. . . . All the books published between 1588 and 1590 also come with something even more helpful. . . . Each of the books from that period have a letter of the alphabet hand-written at the bottom of the title page . . . . Even more helpfully, all these lettered books have handwritten page numbers in the upper right-hand corners.

“The book labeled A starts with page number 1. The page numbers are continuous from one book to the next, and they strictly follow the alphabetical order of the letters: the last page of A is page 14, and the first page of B is page 15. The only gaps in the numbers occur where letters of the alphabet — that is, one or more books — have gone missing.”

She realized that “All these books were bound together into a single large volume at some point, which is something Renaissance book collectors liked to do: you have to remember that even big 16th- century books were generally sold in unbound form, more like modern pamphlets than anything, and it was the owner’s responsibility to get them into some sort of durable cover. Every one of these books has a set of needle holes in the inner margins, and they’re always the same distance apart. The group of books was eventually broken up and sold separately, which is why they ended up all over the English-speaking world.”

Because she realized that the books were all bound together, that the books are labeled, each with an alphabetical letter, and that all the books are numbered consecutively in sequence, McCarthy now knows the size of some of the books that have not yet been found and can make an educated guess about when the missing books were purchased. “Just to give one quick example: the title page with the letter H is missing, but we know that H was a pamphlet exactly 16 pages long, which he almost certainly bought in 1589. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing. You don’t have all the pieces yet, but at least you know where the missing ones go in the picture, and whether they’re likely to be sky or grass or building or something else.”

And last year she found out that there are lots more books that she first thought. “There’s one signed volume I knew existed from reading about it in catalogs, but it only showed up last year . . .. This book turns out to be labeled with the letter Q and given page numbers 469 through 498. Nice high numbers, and the letter Q is well along in the alphabet. This is good news. It means there are even more pieces in the jigsaw puzzle than I’d thought.”

What were those additional books she’s managed to locate? Some are anti-Catholic books and pamphlets similar to The Unmasking of the Politike Atheist. “As they kept showing up, I realized that the little volume about The Unmasking of the Politike Atheist wasn’t as strange as I’d thought. Byrd had plenty of other books and pamphlets just like it. Most of the things he signed were works of political or religious controversy. All of those books take the Protestant and Northern European side, although some of them do it with a bit less vehemence. This doesn’t add up with any of the received wisdom about Byrd. Was it all some kind of decoy? Did he have over-eager Protestant friends and family who were slipping him tracts: Here — you might be interested in reading this?”

Fifth, and finally, we try to understand why in the world Byrd owned these books and why he doesn’t have the books we’d expect him to have

The topics of some of the other books in the Byrd library are quite varied. According to McCarthy, “Quite a few of the books have to do with the wars of religion in France . . .. A couple of things from Byrd’s collection have to do with Spain rather than France. . . . Byrd was also interested in books describing the problems at home in England.” He was apparently an armchair traveler, since he owned “a sixteenth-century guide for the traveller to Europe,” although he was never known to venture outside his home country. True to his reputation as a litigious man (which is a whole other story), he also owned a handbook of English law. But in general, these are not the books we would expect him to have.

McCarthy said, “I’ve managed to find a dozen books owned by Byrd, and indirect evidence of what seem to be six or seven more. I’m never sure what will show up next, but given what we have now, almost nothing would surprise me. They’re not the books we might want an English composer to have signed. There’s no Shakespeare; there’s no King James Bible; even more annoyingly, there’s not even any music yet, although some of the books talk about music in passing. This particular collection of books shows a quite different side of the composer’s personality.”

“So that’s a glimpse into Byrd’s library. Of course all this is only a footnote to his musical career — but it’s an important footnote, and it’s surprising how it colors our view of his work once we start reflecting on it a bit.” Why did Byrd buy these books? “Unless some spectacular new source shows up, we can only guess about this. There is a certain kind of person who’s most inspired by listening to the opposition, by reading or hearing opinions they don’t like. It’s not hard to imagine him fueling his extraordinary creativity with these angry rants against many of the things he held dear. Every one of us knows someone like that. If Byrd were alive now, I can guarantee you he’d be a great reader of political blogs. I consider myself extremely lucky to have stumbled onto the 16th-century equivalent.”

Professor Kerry Robin McCarthy

Kerry Robin McCarthy, Professor, Byrd Scholar, and Sleuth

First page of the Kyrie from the Cantus part book, which McCarthy directly copied from the second edition of Byrd’s Mass for 3 Voices 1599-1600.

First page of the Kyrie from the Cantus part book, which McCarthy copied directly from the second edition of Byrd’s Mass for 3 Voices 1599-1600.


  1. says

    I just received a nice email from Prof. McCarthy about this post: “Many thanks for the link to this. I’m delighted and flattered. What a nice piece of publicity for our beloved composer! Please feel free to direct people to me if they have any Byrd-related questions you can’t answer. (Of course there’s the possibility I won’t be able to answer them either.)” Let me know if you have Byrd questions, and I’ll pass them on to her.