Sing Praises to God: William Byrd

Ammon’s rapturous speech at the end of his mission famously climaxes with the phrase “I cannot say the smallest part which I feel,” but it also includes two references to singing: an opening call to “sing [God’s] praise” and a statement that the Lamanite converts have been “brought to sing redeeming love.” When joy breaks upon the shoals of language, music still remains to express it, and indeed there may be no other way to give full voice to the power of redeeming love. William Byrd, perhaps the greatest of Tudor composers, understood the capacity for music to express joy, as in today’s psalm, which invites us to “shout to God with loud songs of joy, but also in this setting of words from the 81st psalm:


Because music can enable worship so powerfully, the tradition of appointing official musicians runs back for millennia. The Book of Chronicles records that King David made such appointments, and Queen Elizabeth followed suit many years later in England, making Byrd a member of the Chapel Royal in 1572. Churches in the Anglican tradition still use the liturgical works that Byrd composed in this capacity. These two settings of the Nunc dimittis (from the relatively simple Short Service and the more elaborate Great Service) illustrate the range of what Byrd could do with the standard texts from the service:



Not all of Byrd’s music was sacred. Belonging to the Chapel Royal put him in contact with the powerful figures of his day, including Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury. When Cecil died, Byrd composed a Pavan with two Galliards in his memory:


He also arranged popular songs, such as “Browning,” or “The Leaves Be Green”:


Even such apparently secular pieces show Byrd’s ability to celebrate both the extraordinary and the ordinary by taking them as occasions to add beauty to the world. Such music shows that worship can reach beyond cathedral walls and imbue everyday life with the beauty of holiness.

His appointment to the Anglican Chapel Royal notwithstanding, Byrd converted to Catholicism sometime in the 1570s—a move that, in the context of the time, exposed him to great risk. His setting of Jesus’s warning in Mark to watch for the unexpected coming of the master of the house may reflect the wariness that Catholics had to exercise during this period:


Unsurprisingly, Byrd also gave more positive expression to his Catholicism, composing several settings of the mass, including this one in 5 voices:


As Mormons we should celebrate Byrd’s courage of his convictions. By abiding faithfully in the true vine, he was able to bring forth much fruit in both religious traditions to which he was connected. We ought to follow suit, through our music glorifying God in ways that will enable all nations to come and worship together. Joseph Smith, after all, pictured the great day of the Lord in musical terms, with all creation singing together:

Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the deadspeak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.

Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!

If Orson F. Whitney famously wondered when Mormonism would produce its Miltons and Shakespeares, we might also justly hope for a Mormon William Byrd.



Mormon Lectionary Project

William Byrd, Composer, 1623

1 Chronicles 15:16, 19-25, 28 (NRSV); Psalm 47 (NRSV); John 15:1-8 (NRSV)Revelation 15:1-4 (NRSV); Alma 26:8-16; D&C 128:22-23

The Collect: O Father of song, who educated your servant William Byrd in the means whereby you from discordant chaos composed a beautiful and harmonious creation: grant that we your children might blend our voices with creation in the grandest polyphony, singing one song just as you are one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Because there’s no such thing as too much Byrd, here are two of my favorites, his setting of verses from Psalm 51:


and his setting of the Eucharistic hymn Ave Verum Corpus:



  1. woodboy says:

    Love Byrd. And you’ve picked some of his best work here. We had “Sing Joyfully” sung at our wedding.

  2. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    I devoutly wish for a Mormon Byrd!

  3. Hedgehog says:

    I frequently long for more hymns of praise, and glorifying God in our worship services. They aren’t selected nearly frequently enough.

    Back when it was my task to select hymns I ensured that we would at least open with one.

%d bloggers like this: