Byrd's Lullaby for the Child Jesus

Giotto. Nativity Scene. Scrovegni Chapel/Arena Chapel. Padua, Italy

One of Byrd’s most famous consort songs is the "Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby". It was also the most popular of his works during the composer’s lifetime.

Despite the composer’s self-deprecating claim that these consort songs were designed to persuade "everyone to learn how to sing", this music makes the highest vocal demands, and would not be considered accessible to the average singer.

Lyrics

Refrain:
O woe and woeful heavy day when wretches have their will!
Lulla, la-lulla, lulla, lullaby.

1. My sweet little Baby, what meanest Thou to cry?
Be still, my blessed Babe, though cause Thou hast to mourn,
Whose blood most innocent to shed the cruel king has sworn;
And lo, alas! behold what slaughter he doth make,
Shedding the blood of infants all, sweet Saviour, for Thy sake.
A King, a King is born, they say, which King this king would kill. Refrain.

2. Three kings this King of kings to see are come from far,
To each unknown, with offerings great, by guiding of a star;
And shepherds heard the song which angels bright did sing.
Giving all glory unto God for coming of this King,
Which must be made away — King Herod would Him kill. Refrain.

3. Lo, lo, my little Babe, be still, lament no more:
From fury Thou shalt step aside, help have we still instore;
We heavenly warning have some other soil to seek;
From death must fly the Lord of life, as lamb both mild and meek;
Thus must my Babe obey the king that would Him kill. Refrain.

4. But thou shalt live and reign, as sibyls hath foresaid,
As all the prophets prophesy, whose mother, yet a maid
And perfect virgin pure, with her breasts shall upbread
Both God and man that all hath made, the Son of heavenly seed,
Whom caitiffs none can 'tray, whom tyrants none can kill. Refrain.

Style

Consort song is a descriptive term for a type of composition written mostly by English composers of the early Elizabethan era. It consisted typically of a setting of secular verse for a solo voice and a quartet of viols, the consort.  Byrd continued to write consort songs long after the form had fallen out of favor with his younger contemporaries; to be superseded by the madrigal. 

William Byrd was a leading English composer of the late Renaissance period and student and colleague of fellow Catholic composer Thomas Tallis. He became known for his mastery of many different musical genres both sacred and secular.

Although he was Catholic, many of his commissioned works were for the Anglican Church, a practice for which he received much scrutiny. However, recognizing the breadth of his talents, Queen Elizabeth I along with many other important figures protected him from prosecution. Under Mary, Elizabeth and the latter years of Henry VIII, the Latin Rite and Latin texted music quietly persisted as an important focus for Catholics: an essential contradiction of the age! The staunchly recusant Byrd was once described by Elizabeth I "a stiff Papist and a good subject".

Tallis' death in 1585 may have prompted Byrd to organize his future, for over the next three years he quickly published collections of his own music including Psalms, Sonnets, Songs of Sadness and Pietie (1588), in which Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby is found.

Eventually, Byrd found the political heat of the court life too severe and retired under the protection of Catholic noblemen in the English countryside.

Among his highest accomplishments are the Cantiones Sacræ, collections of Latin sacred music, intended for the private Catholic families among whom he sought refuge.