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Hyperion Records

CDS44461/7 - Byrd: The Complete Keyboard Music
Phoenix. A glass window specially designed, made and photographed by Malcolm Crowthers.
(Originally issued on CDA66551/7)
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: September 2010
Total duration: 492 minutes 57 seconds

The Complete Keyboard Music
Pavin  [5'17]
The Galliard  [1'47]
Pavana  [5'02]
Galiarda  [1'48]
Pavin  [4'51]
Galliard  [1'53]
Pavana  [1'43]
Galiardo  [1'09]
Galiardo Secondo  [2'10]
Paven  [4'17]
The Galliard  [1'59]
Paven  [8'47]
Galliard  [4'34]
A Pavion  [4'42]
The Galliard  [1'44]
Pavana  [4'42]
Galiarda  [1'33]
Pavana  [2'17]
Galiarda  [1'48]
Pavana  [5'04]
Galliarda  [1'47]
Paven  [2'33]
Galiard  [1'34]
Pavian  [4'39]
Galliarde  [1'43]
Pavian  [2'57]
Galliarde  [1'45]
Pavian  [5'03]
Galliard  [1'46]
Pavian  [2'50]
Galliarde  [1'49]
Pavian  [5'12]
Galliarde  [1'41]
Pavana  [4'49]
Galliarde  [1'44]
Pavian  [6'31]
Galliarde  [5'19]
Pavana  [4'30]
Galiardo  [2'13]
Pavyn  [4'11]
Galliard  [1'36]
Paven  [1'59]
Galiard  [1'02]
Pavion  [4'13]

The Gramophone Award-winning artist, Davitt Moroney has spent more than fifteen years planning this momentous project and Hyperion are proud to be able to bring Davitt’s wealth of expertise and musicianship to the label.

As an authentic complete survey of this music, six different instruments have been used for the recording – two different harpsichords, muselar virginal, clavichord, chamber organ, and the Ahrend organ at L’Église-Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France (where the huge and high nave creates an echo that lasts for nearly fifteen seconds, not unlike the acoustic at Lincoln Cathedral where Byrd was the organist and master of the choristers).

According to ancient legend, the phoenix (an image Byrd used in his first publication in 1575) is reborn from the centre of a blazing fire every five hundred years. Byrd, indeed, had to wait nearly as long before modern editions, concerts and recordings have been able to bring his music back to life. Davitt Moroney is the perfect musician for the job.

Important recent archival discoveries have established many new details concerning Byrd’s date of birth, his family and his London origins (see John Harley, William Byrd: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1997). In one newly identified document dating from 1598, Byrd describes himself as being ‘58 yeares or ther abouts’, implying that he must have been born in about 1540. He was the one of the seven children of Margery and Thomas Byrd; his father was not, apparently, the much-cited musician of this same name who was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and who died in 1560. Nevertheless, it is clear that William was born into a musical family since his two elder brothers, Simon and John, were both choristers at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. We know the names of his four sisters: Alice, Barbara, Mary and Martha; Barbara Byrd was later to marry the virginals- and organ-maker, Robert Broughe.

We still know next to nothing about Byrd’s upbringing or his early musical training but the London connection makes it likely that he came under the wing of Thomas Tallis at an early age. That Tallis was one of his teachers may be deduced from a text by another Tallis pupil, the seventeen-year-old Ferdinand Heybourne (Ferdinando Richardson). In a Latin prefatory verse dedicated to Tallis and Byrd in their joint publication of Cantiones sacrae (1575) he refers to Tallis as ‘my venerable elder and great teacher’ and comments that Byrd is ‘born to honour such a great teacher... with you, I honour our common master’. This point was taken up nearly a century later by Anthony Wood (1632-1695) whose well-known phrase that Byrd was ‘bred up to musick under Tho. Tallis’ passed into all the standard history books.

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) was the finest English composer of his generation. His exceptionally long life allowed him to achieve a pre-eminence equalled by none, and his influence on the young Byrd may be felt in many ways. Tallis’s brilliant skills in the pre-Reformation arts of florid counterpoint had earned him his place in the Chapel Royal in 1543. However, the winds of reform were sweeping across Britain. Tallis thus became one of the inventors of a new and much simpler kind of sacred music to English texts. He retained his monumental skills well into old age, as is shown by the extraordinary forty-part motet Spem in alium – which must date from the Elizabethan years – but was also a composer of some consort works (such as In Nomine settings) and, above all, an excellent organist. His keyboard hymn-settings and the two majestic works based on the Felix namque plainsong, dated 1562 and 1564 in the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (FVB), were still admired over fifty years after they were composed. He would certainly have recognised in the young Byrd a spirit at least as adventurous, innovative and versatile as his own. The affectionate relationship of Tallis and Byrd across the generations is comparable to that of Blow and Purcell or Haydn and Mozart. After Tallis’s death in 1585, Byrd mourned him in a consort song: ‘Ye sacred muses, race of Jove / Whom Music’s lore delighteth; / Come down from crystal heav’ns above / To earth, where sorrow dwelleth, / In mourning weeds, with tears in eyes: / Tallis is dead, and Music dies.’ When Tallis’s widow Joan died four years later, she bequeathed to Byrd a ‘greate guilte cuppe’.

Byrd’s keyboard training was probably also influenced by several other eminent players. Although he is unlikely to have had direct contact with the famous organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Redford (who died in 1547), his brothers Simon and John may have known Redford personally and would certainly have known his music. Redford’s pieces constitute the most artistically significant body of English organ music of the Henrician period and were much respected and imitated during the following thirty years. He was succeeded at St Paul’s by Philip ap Rhys (whose activites in London can be traced between 1545 and 1559, critical years for Byrd’s early training); several interesting organ works by him survive in a manuscript of London origin (BL, Add 29996), a source that also contains fine music by the organist of the royal chapel at St George’s, Windsor, Thomas Preston (also active from 1543 to 1559). Finally, John Blitheman (c1525-1591) must also have played a part in his keyboard training, even if only by providing a respectable model from which he would rapidly move on. Blitheman became a member of the Chapel Royal sometime during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558) and the music by him that survives probably dates from the 1550s and 1560s (largely preserved in The Mulliner Book). A repertoire such as this would have formed a fine training for any young organist of Byrd’s generation. All his life he retained a fondness for typically English sonorities, including dissonant false relations.

The tradition upheld by Philip ap Rhys and John Blitheman was digitally brilliant, based on rapid figurations and elaborate cross-rhythms. Their influence can be felt in some of Byrd’s very earliest works. His first Salvator mundi setting (BK68) even quotes from a piece by Blitheman. However, a more expressively melodic approach is noticeable early on, as in the simple Miserere settings (BK66/67); these may be closer to Preston’s work. The strong personality of Redford’s music, characterised by wide spacious writing and a melodic discourse of unique eloquence, must have strongly impressed the young Byrd; indeed he positively embraced its influence, as is clear from a magnificent early work, the Voluntarie (BK27). However, it is above all Tallis’s spirit that comes to the fore. Byrd’s little Gloria tibi trinitas (BK52) quotes directly from a Tallis work and the spirit of the master’s organ hymns and vocal pieces is felt even more strongly in Byrd’s earliest consort pieces as well as in slightly more mature works for keyboard such as the three settings of Clarifica me, pater (BK47-49). Byrd’s early music in general shows its debt to a wide range of other English composers including John Taverner, Robert White and Christopher Tye. Nevertheless, it is striking how quickly he freed himself from the shadow of his masters and became his own man, with a highly distinctive voice.

Some of these compositions might have been written when he was in his teens, during Queen Mary’s reign, and have thus had a short-lived function for the Catholic liturgy. However, Elizabeth’s accession (1558) brought an almost immediate end to all such direct liturgical links with the Latin rite since the Act of Uniformity of 1559, and the establishment of the Elizabethan Prayer Book soon after, delivered a final, definitive blow to the Catholic (Sarum) liturgy. Nevertheless, some composers (Byrd among them) seem to have continued to base works on the traditional plainsongs, and organists continued to play them; to use John Caldwell’s apt phrase, such pieces are ‘inspired by but not intended for the liturgy’.

On 27 February 1562/3 Byrd was in his early twenties and sufficiently brilliant a player and composer to be named organist and master of the choristers at Lincoln cathedral in the north of England, as successor to the ‘skilled and faithful’ Thomas Appleby. He took up his duties on what was then considered the first day of the new year 1563, 25 March (the Annunciation). His annual salary was ten marks (over £13). He married in 1568. His wife is referred to in documents as ‘Juliana’ or ‘Julian’ Byrd; they are known to have had at least seven children: Christopher (baptized in 1569), Elizabeth (baptized early in 1572), Rachell (born sometime before 1574), Mary, Catherine, Thomas (baptized in 1576; Tallis was his godfather), and Edward (Thomas’s twin brother), who seems to have died young.

The Dean of Lincoln Cathedral, Francis Mallett, was known for his appreciation of music but he died in 1570. However, the Archdeacon was John Aylmer, a zealous anti-papist, later appointed Bishop of London, with whom Byrd was to have more severe problems in 1577. His later years in Lincoln were marked by some disputes with the authorities. Yet independently of any disputes, he must have been waiting for an opportunity to leave. Like any young musician of talent, he hoped for a post in the Chapel Royal, but these were limited in number. He had to wait for eight years until one became free and he could return to London. The opportunity came on the death of yet another composer whose influence on him can be demonstrated – Robert Parsons, who drowned in the river Trent at Newark on 25 January 1571/2. Byrd was immediately appointed in his place and although he was named a member of the Chapel Royal in February 1571/2, he formally left Lincoln only in December 1572 (and was succeeded by Thomas Butler).

The Lincoln authorities agreed to release him only on condition that he should remain ‘at large’, maintaining a link with the cathedral. For ten years he went on receiving a much reduced salary from Lincoln in return for writing sacred music for them, presumably mostly in English. This shows his early reputation as a composer of sacred music and confirms that while in Lincoln he was not simply an organist who wrote only keyboard works.

By the time he left, he had no doubt already composed the following works: the Christe qui lux (BK121; if it is authentic); the Voluntarie (BK27; if it had not already been composed before going to Lincoln); the A minor and G major fancies (BK13 and BK62) as well as the Ut, mi, re (BK65); the three ‘short’ grounds (BK9, BK43 and BK86, called ‘short’ because composed on a short four-bar ground theme, not because of the length of the works); the excellent Horne Pipe (BK39); and perhaps also the Galliarde Gygge (BK18) and the first version of The Hunt’s Up (BK40). He may also have made at this time the keyboard transcription of Parson’s In nomine (BK51; assuming it was indeed made by him).

In London he was now the colleague of Tallis and Blitheman and a member of the most prestigious musical establishment in the kingdom. Byrd held one of the posts of organist. The choir of the Chapel Royal was the largest and certainly the finest of its kind. The conditions of employment were excellent: most musicians received annual salaries of £30 a year (later increased to £40), more than three times higher than the norm elsewhere. In London and court circles he rapidly acquired powerful patrons, including several noble families, some of whom had remained attached to Roman Catholicism. Over the next thirty years the list of dedicatees of his published volumes amply establishes the powerful circles in which he moved: Queen Elizabeth (1575), Sir Christopher Hatton (1588), Lord Worcester (1589), Lord Hunsdon (1589), Lord Lumley (1591), Lord Northampton (1605), Lord Petre (1607) and Lord Cumberland (1611). In 1579/80 he taught the daughter of Lord Northumberland (presumably giving her keyboard lessons); other possible aristocratic pupils were Henry Herbert and Thomas Paget. The relationship with certain families lasted for much of Byrd’s life. The link with the Petre family seems to date from at least 1568 (before his return to London) and thus lasted over fifty years. His ties with Lord Worcester were also very longstanding, since he still stayed at Worcester’s London house right at the end of his life.

In 1575 he published jointly with Tallis the first volume of Cantiones sacrae, dedicated to the Queen herself, the first important edition of English music. The mastery shown by Byrd in these motets must have been acquired during the previous ten or fifteen years, and we may assume that his keyboard works written over the same period were at least as accomplished. The following pieces had probably been composed by the time he published the Cantiones sacrae: – the C minor pavan, supposedly ‘the first that ever hee made’, no doubt with its galliard (BK29a/b); – An Almane (BK89); – A Verse of Two Parts (BK28) and the first (consort) version of A Lesson of voluntarie, two parts in one in the 4th above (BK26); – the variations on Gypseis Round (BK80) and perhaps The Mayden’s songe (BK82); – the ground Qui passe, for my Ladye Nevell (BK19). These compositions are all quite within the native tradition, even the last (based on an Italian model that was well known in England at the time); however, the 1575 Cantiones sacrae show that Byrd, by now fully conversant with everything his heritage could offer, was already looking further afield for inspiration.

He found it especially in the music of the Italian Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543-1588) who had settled in London, with whose music he became familiar between 1572 and 1578. But he had never been cut off from continental developments. Indeed, in his youth, in 1554, he may well have met Antonio de Cabezon (as well as his brother Juan, and his son Agustín who would have been about his own age) during the Spanish Chapel Royal’s long stay in England. For over six months the two Chapels lived side by side and sometimes performed together at Mass. Nevertheless, there is very little trace of direct Spanish influence in his keyboard music.

Through such contacts, and his first-hand knowledge of Italian music, Byrd’s eyes and ears were opened to new ideas, above all to the innovative Italianate methods of constructing long paragraphs in imitative polyphony that were based on shorter, expressive, melodic phrases, that used a richer harmonic language, and displayed a different approach to word-setting. His keyboard writing was also transformed as a result, above all in its ways of constructing these extended paragraphs (‘points’) of cogent musical thought, independent of any text. This was musical discourse that could be argued, developed, expanded, contracted, recapitulated in varied form, and finally brought to a satisfying melodic, rhythmic and harmonic climax, thus achieving full independence from the grammatical and syntactical influences of a text such as helped shape vocal music. In this way, purely instrumental music was developing its own grammar and syntax, its own raison d’être.

Essential in this stage of his development are the first works in what Joseph Kerman calls his ‘marvellous series of pavans and galliards’. They clearly fascinated Byrd across his whole working life, for fifty years. These forms enabled him to experiment with constructing, time and again, ‘points’ of imitation that obey only their own internal musical logic. Each pavan and each galliard calls for three phrases which need to be quite distinct, yet complementary. They extend occasionally over just four bars, but more often over eight-bar phrases, and – most comfortably of all for Byrd – over leisurely sixteen-bar paragraphs. Two splendid works even have a giant-size 32-bar format for the phrases. In Byrd’s 56 pavans and galliards, there are well over 160 such phrases (or more than 320 if the varied repeats are also counted since they are never written mechanically and the music is always thought-out afresh). It is here, in the varied construction of these 160 musical cells, that these remarkable works, taken as a whole, may be likened to the 96 pieces in Bach’s Well tempered Clavier or the 102 movements of Beethoven’s piano sonatas; they occupy as intimate a position in his output as those two other great repertoires do in Bach’s and Beethoven’s. They may be seen as a sort of laboratory in which he wrestled with new concepts of melodic structure supported by innovative harmonic schemes, and gave renewed life to older English ideas of rhythmic development, now extended across the three phrases of a single piece. Like Bach and Beethoven, he demonstrably put the experience thus acquired to good use in non-keyboard music. ‘Dance form offered him the opportunity for endless subtle manipulations of different rhythms and different phrase lengths ... It was a form that proved to be especially congenial to Byrd’s genius’ (Kerman, 1980). The studied balance between the three such phrases required for the pavan structure, based on the progression from one to the other and above all the internal musical logic that he developed to hold the whole together, remains one of Byrd’s finest achievements.

The following works were probably composed somewhere between about 1575 and 1591: Lady Montegle’s Paven (BK75) and the remaining pavans and galliards in the important dated manuscript My Ladye Nevell’s Book (Nevell; see CD6), including the pair for Sir William Petre (BK3a/b); the variations on All in a garden greene (BK56), Sellinger’s Rownde (BK84), Have with yow to Walsingame (BK8) and Will yow walke the woods so wylde (BK85); A Fancie, for my Ladye Nevell (BK25); the two Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la works (BK58 and 64); the first setting of Monsieur’s Alman (BK87); and The Battell (BK94).

Byrd was now at the height of his powers, had achieved social standing and recognition. He was able to exercise his genius without restraint in whatever direction he wished: vocal music to English or Latin texts; secular songs, even a few (Latin) songs connected with theatrical performances in Oxford; consort and keyboard music. Yet these professionally successful years were also increasingly difficult ones for Byrd personally. In religious matters his sympathies were clearly Roman Catholic, and this was dangerous. His Catholic acquantainces now came under more intense persecution. Several Jesuits such as the brilliant Edmund Campion, and later the fine poet Robert Southwell (whom he knew personally), were arrested, tortured and executed. Catholic families were heavily fined for not attending the reformed church on Sundays (they were thus considered ‘recusants’ since they refused to accept the authority of the English Church). From 1577 Byrd’s wife was under close scrutiny by the authorities, under the eye of the zealous new Bishop of London, John Aylmer, whom Byrd had known in Lincoln. In 1580 the fines for recusants were fixed at £20 per month, nearly ten times Byrd’s monthly salary. From 1581 the Byrd house was regarded as suspiciously ‘papist’. In 1582 his manservant John Reason was arrested and briefly imprisoned. In 1583 Reason was again arrested while carrying a letter by Byrd and some suspiciously Catholic music. Finally, in May 1585, despite his standing at court, Byrd came under direct investigation himself and his house was searched twice. In 1588 Byrd’s wife and two daughters were pronounced outlaws, as was his son Christopher the following year. Defiance in the face of adversity, however, seems to have been a characteristic of this proud and wily man. It is clear that Byrd and his family were only protected from a worse fate by the direct protection of powerful Catholic nobles such as Lords Northampton and Petre. He continued fulfilling his duties at court. The Attorney General intervened on his behalf in 1589 and 1591. Finally, in 1592, the Queen herself appears to have ordered the authorities to halt their harassment of Byrd.

During the later years of this troubled period Byrd published a series of four astonishing volumes, unprecedented in the history of English music and including many of his best vocal works to date – amusing secular songs, pious (but not liturgical) texts in English, and some sombre motets (or ‘sacred songs’), in Latin but not intended for the Catholic liturgy. Indeed, Kerman has shown that some of them had texts made up of irreproachable verses carefully selected from the Bible (especially from the Psalms and the Book of Jeremiah), yet cleverly rearranged in a cryptic, defiant fashion as coded statements secretly addressed to the beseiged English Roman Catholic community, expressing their faith and hope as well as their anger and despair: ‘Look down, O Lord, on our suffering in these terrible times and do not abandon us; Jerusalem is laid waste, the joy in our hearts is changed into grief and our happiness into bitterness’; ‘Weeping, my eye shall bring forth tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive. Tell the king and the queen, “Be humbled, sit down, for the crown of your glory has fallen from your heads”’.

Comparable to these four volumes of vocal music printed between 1588 and 1591, the important manuscript collection of 42 of his finest keyboard works, made in 1591 by his colleague John Baldwin for ‘Ladye Nevell’ appears to have been the result of the same desire. The printing of keyboard music, unlike vocal music, entailed certain difficulties at that time, solved only twenty years later by the technique of engraving on copper plates. These difficulties no doubt dissuaded Byrd from attempting a printed keyboard anthology. He must have been fully aware that his achievement in the field was at least as revolutionary as what he had done in the areas of vocal polyphony. The Nevell manuscript brings to a close this period of four years of anthologizing his best works to date.

It is especially difficult to establish a detailed chronology for the keyboard works of Byrd’s middle period, between his appointment to the Chapel Royal and the copying of Nevell. This manuscript provides a helpful watershed date for many works. The following mature works, being found in that source, must be pre-1591, and in some cases date from considerably earlier: Hugh Ashton’s Grownde (BK20); The Second Ground (BK42); My Ladye Nevell’s Grownde (BK57); the variations on The Carman’s whistle (BK36) and Lord Willobies welcome home (BK7); The Barley Break (BK92); A Voluntarie for my Ladye Nevell (BK61); and the second setting of Monsieur’s Alman (BK88). Certain other fine works are not in Nevell but may also have been composed shortly before 1591: the Bray pavan & galliard (BK59a/b); The Queenes Alman (BK10); the three French Corantos (BK21a/b/c); and perhaps the intabulation of O quam gloriosum est regnum (BK122, assuming Byrd was responsible for this).

During these same years he taught several of the most significant English composers of the next two generations and later had the satisfaction of seeing them all achieve positions of eminence:

— Thomas Morley (c1557-1602) must have studied with Byrd during the 1570s; he became organist at St Paul’s Cathedral and then Gentleman of the Chapel Royal from 1592. Morley’s dedication in 1597 to Byrd of his important treatise in dialogue form, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musick (PEIPM), is phrased in the most affectionate terms. Byrd is also called ‘my loving Maister (never without reverence to be named of the musicians)’. Morley has been shown to have had links with the Catholic community.
— Peter Philips (c1560-1628) apparently also studied with Byrd, probably at about the same time as Morley. He became a Catholic and in 1597 was named organist to the Archduke Albert, in Brussels.
— John Bull (c1563-1628) was trained in the Chapel Royal from the age of about eleven, in the mid-1570s, shortly after Byrd’s nomination; he cannot have failed to come under his influence. Bull was named organist of Hereford Cathedral in 1582. In 1585/6 he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal where he was one of the organists and therefore a direct colleague of Byrd and of his other teacher, John Blitheman. In the opening phrase of a speech he gave at Gresham College on 6 October 1597, Bull acknowledged Byrd as one of his masters, implying that he was present and should be giving the lecture in his place. He used a punning reference to the eagle (to whom others had also likened Byrd), ‘soaring aloft into the clouds ... such a quick-sighted bird should now be in this place, who flying through heaven might fetch Apollo’s harp and sound unto you the prayse of heavenlie Musick. My Master liveth and long may he live, and I his scholar not worthy in yours and his presence to speak of this Art and Science.’ Bull also converted to Catholicism. In 1613 he became Philips’s colleague as organist to the Archduke Albert in Brussels, and then organist of Antwerp Cathedral.
— Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) probably studied with Byrd from about 1594 until 1596 when he left for Worcester as organist of the cathedral. He became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1621. In the dedication his Songs of 3. 4. 5. & 6. parts (1622) he referred to Byrd as ‘my ancient, & much reverenced Master’. Two manuscripts belonging to Tomkins survive, one of which contains two fascinating lists of all the keyboard pieces he considered to be exceptionally good, the famous lists of Lessons of worthe. Tomkins had an excellent critical sense and the eighteen pieces by Byrd he includes are indeed among his finest: grounds and variations: Walsingham, BK8, Hugh Ashton’s Grownde, BK20, The Carman’s whistle, BK36, Go from my window, BK79, O Mistris myne, I must, BK83, Sellinger’s Rownde, BK84, and A Grounde, BK86; fantasias: A Lesson of voluntarie, two parts in one in the 4th above, BK26, Fantasia, BK62, Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, BK64, Ut, mi, re, BK65; pavans and galliards: Quadran Paven and Galliard, BK70a/b, Pavana and Galiardo Sir William Petre, BK3a/b, Eccho paven & galliard, BK114a/b; and finally Monsieur’s Alman (II), BK88.
— Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) may also have been a pupil, probably during the early 1590s. He was appointed organist of Winchester College in 1598 and of Chichester Cathedral in 1602. Although he described himself in 1608 as ‘Gentleman of the Chapel Royal,’ he appears to have been only a Gentleman Extraordinary. An important manuscript containing over thirty keyboard pieces by Byrd, British Library Add. MS. 30485 (Weelkes), is now considered to have been copied by him, possibly partly while he was studying with Byrd.

It cannot be shown that Richard Mico (c1590-1661) formally studied with Byrd, but he cannot have failed to be strongly influenced by the ageing master. Mico was employed by Byrd’s important patron Lord William Petre at Thorndon Hall, Essex, close to Byrd’s house in Stondon Massey (see below); he taught Petre’s daughter the virginals. He became a Roman Catholic and his son became a Jesuit. These links as well as the style of Mico’s compositions (all the surviving works are for viols) confirm Byrd’s influence. Similarly, there is no record of Byrd having had any part in the training of Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), perhaps the most original of all these composers; nevertheless, Gibbons became one of Byrd’s colleagues in the Chapel Royal in 1604, and his collaboration with Byrd and Bull in the innovative keyboard publication, Parthenia (1612/13) clearly indicates a relationship.

Following his problems with the authorities, Byrd left London in about 1593 and moved his family to a farm at Stondon Place in the parish of Stondon Massey, close to the Catholic family of Lord Petre in his great Essex estates. These included Thorndon Hall and his seat at Ingatestone Hall where two of these discs (CDs 1 and 4) were recorded. Here Byrd undertook the most ambitious and most dangerous project of his life – the composition of well over a hundred pieces specifically intended for the full annual cycle of the Roman Catholic Latin rite. This was his greatest large-scale venture and the music is of the very highest quality throughout, passionate and visionary. He published it in three phases. First came the three settings (for three, four and five voices) of the Ordinary of the Mass, published between 1592 and 1595 with the greatest of discretion, and under his own name; the publisher, on the other hand, did not dare put his own name on the volumes. Then, and only after Queen Elizabeth’s death, he brought out the two volumes of Gradualia (1605, 1607; reprinted in 1610). All these compositions were not grand works designed for public ceremonial use, but concise, intimate pieces probably intended for singing one to a part, like madrigals: sacred chamber music, suitable for singing in ceremonies in recusant households such as Ingatestone Hall, out of sight of the authorities.

During these years Byrd’s keyboard music also underwent further changes. Several works that are not in Nevell seem to be in a late style: the preludes in G minor (BK1) and F major (BK115); the settings of Pavana Lachrymae and Harding’s Galliard (BK54/55); the ‘Ph. Tr.’ (BK60a/b) and Quadran (BK70a/b) pavans and galliards; the variations on Callino Casturame (BK35) and Go from my window (BK79); and the third version, in C major, of Monsieur’s Alman (BK44).

A final volume of secular vocal music appeared in 1611, confirming his desire to bring together the best of his works. The dedication to the Earl of Cumberland shows that he was still composing well into old age: ‘The Naturall inclination and love to the Art of Musicke, wherein I have spent the better part of mine age, have been so powerfull in me that even in my old yeares which are desirous of rest, I cannot containe my selfe from taking some paines therein.’ Other keyboard pieces seem in the very latest style and probably date from these final years: the preludes in C major (BK24) and G major (BK116); the Alman in C major (BK117); the Mistris Marye Brownlo galliard (BK34); the Eccho (BK114a/b), Earle of Salisbury (BK15a/b/c) and C major (BK33a/b) pavans and galliards; the variations on Jhon come kisse me now (BK81) and O Mistris myne, I must (BK83).

Byrd’s immediate legacy was twofold and diverse. In England, his most original contributions in the specific area of keyboard music bore fruit yet, curiously, native English composers subsequently lost a firm sense of direction. Nevertheless, Byrd’s pupils (and Gibbons) maintained and developed, especially in consort writing, his rich and concise approach to polyphony. This characteristically insular, English stilo antico leads directly through William Lawes and John Jenkins to Matthew Locke and Henry Purcell. On the Continent, on the other hand, Byrd’s polyphonic style had no direct influence since it remained almost entirely unknown; however, in the area of keyboard music, Philips and Bull influenced such fine players as their colleague Pieter Cornet (c1575-1633), as well as Sweelinck (1562-1621), who in turn formed the next generation, Scheidt and Scheidemann.

Recording Byrd’s death on 4 July 1623, one of his Chapel Royal colleagues referred to him as ‘a Father of Musick’. This may possibly be simply a reference to his being the oldest member of the Chapel. However, an unidentified writer ‘G. Ga’ (perhaps George Gage) had already referred to him in a Latin epigram in the second volume of Gradualia (1607) as ‘cultivated by many and admired by all, Master William Byrd, Father of British Music’.

The fantasias
‘So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical’

(Duke Orsino, Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene 1)

The pleasures of listening to instrumental music were described in 1555 by an Italian gentleman writing in French, who had the good fortune to hear one of the greatest players in Europe: ‘He placed himself at one end of the table and began a fantasia ... he continued with such ravishing work that gradually, with his own divine way of playing ... he transported all the listeners with a melancholia so graceful that, while one person leant his head on his hand, supported by his elbow, another had his limbs sprawled carelessly, his mouth open and his eyes more than half closed ... another’s chin was sunk onto his chest, his face disguised with the saddest silence that ever was seen. Each listener became deprived of all feeling, except for his hearing, as if his soul ... had been withdrawn to the edge of the ears, more easily to enjoy such ravishing harmony ... We would all have remained like that, had he not ... with gentle strength, restored our souls and feelings to the state from which he had removed them; but not without leaving us much astonished, as if we had been transported in ecstasy by some divine fury.’

The player was the lutenist Francesco da Milano, il Divino, whose distinguished place in the history of music is partly due to his having developed a convincing musical discourse that was purely instrumental. Several of Francesco’s fantasias survive in English sources. It is certainly not by chance that the extraordinary work he played was a fantasia; it no doubt contained many of the ‘pleasaunt reports, repetitions, and running poyntes’ referred to in Peacham’s The Garden of Eloquence, mentioned above. ‘Fantasy’ – known also in English simply as ‘fancy’ – was a key word in the development of non-verbal music.

In the sources of Byrd’s works, various titles such as fancie, fantasia, voluntarie, lesson and verse are used to describe his keyboard fancies. There are eleven such works surviving (BK13, 25, 26, 27, 28, 46, 61, 62, 63 and the two impressive hexachord works BK64, 65). Although strikingly different among themselves, they are generally different from Continental monothematic fantasias of the period, which are written in a stricter form that prefigures the fugue. While earlier continental fantasies were not always monothematic, they did maintain a consistency of style and tone. On the other hand, the later sixteenth-century English fancy is also made up of a series of different ‘points’ that evolve structurally at an unhurried pace, with one idea slowly giving way in the fullness of time to another, but the style of the piece changes radically as the ideas get progressively more lively. In Byrd’s works learned imitative counterpoint is indeed normally heard at the start, but he breaks out fairly soon into triplet dance rhythms, and not infrequently incorporates quotations from popular Elizabethan tunes near the end. The serious writing heard at the start is quite abandoned by the midway point.

Thomas Morley’s famous definition of the style cannot be bettered: ‘The most principal and chiefest kind of musicke which is made without a dittie is the fantasie, that is, when a musician taketh a point [of imitation] at his pleasure, and wresteth and turneth it as he list [i.e. chooses], making either much or little of it according as shall seeme best in his own conceit. In this may more art be showne than in any other musicke, because the composer is tied to nothing but that he may adde, diminish, and alter at his pleasure’ (PEIPM, p 181). Since Morley explains in the book’s dedication to his teacher that the contents ‘somtime proceeded from your selfe’, we can safely see here an eloquent description of Byrd’s own fancies.

Twenty years later, Michael Praetorius borrowed from Morley for his own explanation of it (Syntagma musicum, 1619). Christopher Simpson’s description, although published eighty years after Morley, is still derived from it: ‘the chief and most excellent, for Art and Contrivance, are Fancies ... In this sort of Music the Composer (not being confined to words) employs all his Art and Invention solely about the bringing in and carrying on of Fuges ... When he has tried all the ways that he thinks fit to be used, he take another Point and does the like with it; or else for variety introduces some Chromatic Notes, with Bindings and Intermixtures of Discords; or falls into some light Humour like a Madrigal, or what else his fancy shall lead him, but still concluding with something which hath Art and Excellency in it. Of this sort there are many compositions formerly made in England ... This kind of Music (the more is the pity) is now much neglected, by reason of the scarcity of Auditors that understand it (or Composers that write it) their Ears being better acquainted and more delighted with light Music’ (A Compendium, or Introduction to Practicall Music, 1677, pp 73/4).

Byrd’s Lesson of voluntarie (BK26; CD1/8) is a fine example from his middle period. It is based on no less than fourteen different points, or themes, developed one after the other. The opening is serious, aimed at the more learned listeners (and with a canon thrown in for good measure), but soon starts playing to the gallery by involving not only dance elements but also the recognisable popular Elizabethan tune Sicke, sicke and very sicke, a joke that would not have been lost on listeners of the day. In Byrd’s fancies, generous imagination and structural freedom reign throughout, and the fingers are freed more than in any other kind of music. Morley’s reference to a player ‘with a quicke hand playing upon an instrument, shewing in voluntarie the agilitie of his fingers’ (PEIPM, p 150) refers specifically to this kind of music. The only fancies by Byrd to remain monothematic are the two grand hexachord works (BK64/65), although dance elements are freely used in the second half of each work.

Morley also notes that ‘divers men [are] diversly attracted to divers kindes of musicke,’ explaining that ‘as there be divers kinds of musicke, so will some mens humours be more enclined to one kind than to another’ (PEIPM, p 181). Some twenty years later, Henry Peacham the younger noted this in connection with Byrd, at the very end of the composer’s long life: ‘being of himself naturally disposed to gravity and piety his vein is not so much for light madrigals or canzonets’ (The Compleat Gentleman, 1622). Although the old Roman virtue of pietas does not apply to his keyboard music, gravitas is certainly an essential quality in Byrd’s music. It is best appreciated in the context of Elizabethan attitudes to literary, and by extension musical, styles. Peacham stresses that the specific compositional figures used by musicians are identical to the rhetorical ones used by poets.

Elisabethan poetry had a consciously high or noble style and an equally self-evident plain style. These can be exemplified (if over-simplified) by comparing the two kinds of discourse that Shakespeare gives to Prince Hal in Henry IV. In the opening scene when he is in the tavern with Falstaff and his drinking companions, he puts on a verbal cloak by adopting prose speech with ordinary vocabulary; however, the minute he is alone he talks as a prince, adopting the highest form of poetry, in supple but regular ten-syllable lines, often rhymed, and using a rich vocabulary. This is not all, for in his prose speeches the ideas are less developed, and indeed are not designed for much developing, whereas in his role as poetical prince the ideas are full of gravitas, announced, developed, expanded and brought to fulfilment. To the theorists such as Byrd’s contemporary George Puttenham (The Arte of English Poesie, 1593), this high style used the traditional rhetorical techniques which aimed to delight the ear, that is, the arts of ‘variation’, ‘amplification’ and ‘beautification’. The accepted characteristics of the high style were gravity, dignity, sonorousness and vehemence. All of these characteristics may be found in Byrd’s keyboard music.

Prince Hal starts in the tavern and ends up with the most severe of princely discourses. Byrd fantasies are rather similar but make the reverse journey. They start in grave, noble counterpoint, in which the ideas are announced, developed and expanded, becoming material (‘matter’) for large supple paragraphs of sound; but they often end up closer to Falstaff’s taverns, mixing dance tunes with quotations from amusing popular songs.

The variations on popular tunes

Byrd’s fourteen sets of variations on Elizabethan songs, not surprisingly, are rarely written in the grave style. To have composed Sellinger’s Rownde in the solemn style would have been an evident solecism, an error of style, perhaps even of decorum. In an amusing moment in Morley’s book, the student Philomathes tries to pass off as a counterpoint of his own invention a version in the minor of this tune, normally in G major! His brother Polymathes immediately notes, ‘I promise you (brother) you are much beholding to Sellingers round for that beginning of yours’. The Master, on the other hand, whose words must often echo Byrd’s to Morley, is more indulgent: ‘You must not be so ready to condemn him for that ... I my selfe being a childe have heard him highly commended who could upon a plainsong sing ... countrey daunces, and hee who could bring in maniest of them was counted the jollyest fellowe’. Thirty pages later they are still laughing at the joke (PEIPM, pp 118, 146).

That Byrd could also be a ‘jolly fellowe’ is clear from the popular tunes he used as the basis for the works in variation form. He often tidied them up. This is no doubt what Thomas Ravenscroft was referring to when he wrote about ‘Art having reformed’ the pleasing tunes that ‘injurious time and ignorance had deformed’. More surpisingly, Byrd also cheekily incorporated such tunes not only into the fantasias (‘Sicke, sicke and very sicke’ in BK26; the ‘Bruynsmedelijn’ or ‘Bassa Fiamenga’ in BK64; and a known tune without a title in BK13), but also into grounds (‘The woods so wilde’ and ‘The Shaking of the Sheets’ in BK58; ‘The Nine Muses’ in BK40), into a serious galliard (‘Lusty gallant’ in BK2b), and into The Barley Break, BK92 (‘Browning, my dear’). No doubt other sixteenth-century tunes are there also, but have not yet been identified.

As with the pavans, Byrd’s approach to his variations is influenced by the phrase-lengths, here imposed by the original tune. The melodies he chose vary from eight to twenty bars. For the longer or slower melodies, such as Sellinger’s Rownde (BK84) or O mistress mine, I must (BK83), he normally writes between six and nine variations whereas for the shorter tunes, Jhon come kisse me now (BK81) and Walsingham (BK8), he writes sixteen and twenty-two variations respectively.

A particularly short work such as Wilson’s Wilde (BK37), which presents the complete tune only twice, is essentially identical in approach to some other works that all present two statements of the original material: the C major Corranto (BK45), the G minor Alman (BK11), and three somewhat longer pieces, the Galliard Jig (BK18), the alman-like The Ghost (BK78) and the first G major setting of Monsieur’s Alman (BK87). Similarly, Lord Willoughby’s Welcome home (BK7) presents the tune three times in all and is thus comparable to The Queen’s Alman (BK10), Qui passe for my Lady Nevell (BK19) and the second G major setting of Monsieur’s Alman (BK88). These pieces, despite in some cases being built upon bass grounds rather than treble melodies, also present just three statements of the melody. Modern Cartesian distinctions between ‘grounds’, ‘set of variations on popular tunes’ and some of the smaller ‘dances’ such as corantos and almans are thus a little artificial, giving more importance to the original material than to Byrd’s treatment of it. Puttenham’s techniques of ‘variation’, ‘amplification’ and ‘beautification’ are his main tools in such cases, whatever the origins of the musical ‘matter’.

One particularly pleasant aspect of Byrd’s approach to variation structure is the way that the last section almost always has a fine descant added above the original tune, in the top of the instrument.

The grounds

‘The Ground, is a set Number of Slow Notes, very Grave, and Stately; which (after it is express’d Once, or Twice, very Plainly) then He that hath Good Brains, and a Good Hand, undertakes to Play several Divisions upon It, Time after Time, till he has shew’d his Bravery, both of Invention, and Hand’ (Thomas Mace, Musick’s Monument, 1676, page 129). Whereas in Byrd’s fourteen sets of variations on popular tunes, the melody remains reasonably stable in the treble while the harmonies are considerably varied from section to section, in his eleven grounds it is the bass that remains steady while the right hand becomes freer and freer, careering all over the keyboard. Byrd’s variations and grounds are two sides of the same ambidextrous coin, but he reacted in a slightly different way to the different challenges each presented.

Mace’s characteristically idiosyncratic description of a ground perfectly fits Byrd’s earliest works in this style, despite having been written more than a century later. In some of them, indeed, Byrd announces the ground itself ‘Once, or Twice, very Plainly’ at the start (and maybe the player is supposed to add it in the others). Some of his earliest keyboard works are very close to this venerable old tradition of improvising over repeated bass patterns, notably the three pieces based on short four-bar patterns (BK9, BK43, BK86) as well as the Horne Pype (BK39) and The Bells (BK38), based on even shorter ones.

The surprising thing here, clearly audible right from these earliest works, is Byrd’s interest in making musical paragraphs transcend the imposed structure of the repeating bass, which itself only ever takes about ten seconds, at most. His musical ‘matter’ builds up over eight or ten statements, gradually developing across the keyboard. As with the fancies, he takes a ‘point’, ‘turning and wresting’ it as he wishes until he is ready to move on. Common to all these grounds is a deliberately slow start (Mace’s ‘Slow Notes, very Grave, and Stately’). Byrd indeed had both ‘Good Brains and a Good Hand’ but he usually takes his time to climb steadily to the top of the hill before coasting down with unstoppable ‘Bravery’ and ‘Invention’. To use another metaphor, the sub-structure provided by the short repeating bass pattern provides the sunken foundations, but Byrd’s arching phrases are of a quite different nature. This is nowhere clearer than in the work based on the shortest of short grounds, The Bells (BK38), using a one-bar pattern: the first main musical paragraph covers 44 statements of the bass. Such pieces remind me of Morley’s eloquent comment about ‘those who ride the great horses: for having first ridden them in a small compasse of ground, they bring them out and ride them abroad at pleasure’ (PEIPM, p 77).

Byrd soon grew restless with short basses, and saw the potential offered by basses that were even longer than was usual in French or Italian music (where they often had eight notes, and thus lasted eight bars). In the early The Hunt’s Up (BK40), the ground is sixteen bars long, the number of variations is eleven. The longest bass used by Byrd (forty bars) is found in the Qui passe for my Ladye Nevell (BK19), where the extreme length of the ground inhibits him from writing more than three variations. In the somewhat comparable (and possibly slightly later) My Ladye Nevell’s Grownde (BK57) the length of the ground is 24 bars but the number of variations is now six. The number of variations is in inverse proportion to the length of the ground; or rather, when the ground is long, he can say everything he has to say within fewer variations. His own overall structures are thus imposed on the grounds, rather than derived from them.

Two of the finest works in ground form are, without doubt, Hugh Aston’s Ground (BK20; a 16-bar bass with twelve variations) and The Second Ground (BK42; a uniquely subtle and melodic 12-bar bass with seventeen variations). Along with the two works in ground form dedicated to Lady Nevell, these were included in the Nevell manuscript. Byrd had now achieved what he sought to do in this area. It was to be a full century before another English composer breathed such life into ground basses, albeit quite differently, yet nothing indicates that Purcell knew Byrd’s keyboard works.

Two other splendid works in ground form are in a category of their own. The pavans and galliards built on the Passinge mesures bass and, later, the Quadran bass (BK2a/b, BK70a/b). They are only superficially built as pavans and galliards since for each pair a single harmonic scheme underlies all the different sections of both the pavan and the galliard. With the Quadran works, Byrd finally said the last word concerning his view of forms based on grounds. It is one of his masterpieces.

The pavans and galliards

The Elizabethans were rather free in their adaptation of the Italian word pavana. Morley uses the three versions pavan, paven, pavane within one sentence and the sources for Byrd’s pavans indiscriminately use paven, pavin, pavyn, pavian, pavion, paduana, pavana, pauana and pavane, with one source often mixing different versions even for the same piece. The authoritative Nevell manuscript mostly (but not exclusively) uses pavian; the even more authoritative Parthenia print opts for Pauana (but sometimes Pavin); the FVB generally prefers Pavana. Since the Elizabethans were not the slightest bit bothered by all this colorful linguistic variety, I have generally left the titles of Byrd’s pieces as they stand in the main source, with all their idiosyncracies. Throughout this text, however, I use the standard modern English term pavan, taken from Morley.

Christopher Simpson gave a good, albeit retrospective, definition of the musical mood and character that a composer or performer of pavans was expected to express: ‘The next in dignity after a Fancy is a Pavan ... At first contrived for a grave and stately manner of Dancing (as most Instrumental Music was, Fancies and Symphonies excepted) but now grown up to a height of Composition made only to delight the Ear’ (A Compendium...,1677, p 74). This assertion that pavans, despite their origins in dance music, had for some time been considered as purely instrumental chamber music, corroborates a much earlier comment in Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchésographie (1588) that a pavan ‘can be sung or played ... without dancing it’. This point is significant for Byrd’s works since he wrote his earliest pavans in the 1570s, when the pavan as a dance was already dying out. He was, of course, always conscious of the intrinsic nature of any dance form that he chose. Just as his earlier compositions based on plainsong had become emancipated from liturgical necessities, thereby becoming ‘inspired by but not intended for the liturgy’, so his pavan and galliard structures acquired their own independence, becoming inspired by but not intended for dancing. Byrd treats dance forms as seriously as Bach does. His pavans benefit from as much close attention on the part of the player (and the listener) as does a Bach gigue in fugue form.

The character of English pavans was more fully described, again retrospectively and somewhat nostalgically, by Thomas Mace: ‘very Grave, and Sober; Full of Art, and Profundity, but seldom us’d, in These our Light Days’ (Musick’s Monument, 1676, p 129).

Morley’s earlier definition (1597) is, not surprisingly, the fullest. He tells us illuminating points about not only the character but also the technical structure of such pieces, explaining that, after fantasias, ‘the next in gravity and goodnes unto this is called a pavane, a kind of staide musicke, ordained for grave dauncing, and most commonly made of three straines, whereof everie straine is plaid or sung twice; a straine they make to containe 8, 12 or 16 semibreves as they list [choose], yet fewer then eight I have not seene in any pavan. In this you may not so much insist in following the point as in a fantasie, but it shal be inough to touch it once and so away to some close. Also in this you must cast your musicke by [groups of] foure [semibreves], so that if you keep that rule it is no matter how many foures you put in your straine, for it will fall out well enough in the ende’ (PEIPM, p 181).

All three definitions insist on the gravity, that the character of a pavan is sober, stately, dignified and staid. It is perhaps of such music that Jessica in The Merchant of Venice is thinking when she says ‘I am never merry when I heare sweet musique’ (Act V, Scene 1).

Morley’s rather technical details are helpful for today’s listeners and may usefully be summarised again: pavans are in duple time and consist of three phrases (or ‘strains’) developed in concise imitation, not chordal writing, each of which is repeated, making for a total of six phrases; the number of semibreves (bars) in each strain should be 8, 12 or 16, or at the very least the number in the whole piece must be divisible by four.

There survive six short pavans by Byrd, with strains of only eight bars (BK4a, BK15a, BK30a, BK71a, BK73a, including the highly dubious BK100a). He seems to have used the twelve-bar format on only one occasion (BK75; see also the note to BK73a, CD5/24). Two-thirds of his pavans, 18 out of 27 works (including the arrangements of lute works by Johnson and Dowland), have the longer structure based on three sixteen-bar strains, and two are truly grandiose ‘32-bar’ structures (BK2a and, in effect, BK70a). Since each strain has a varied repeat, the six ‘8-bar’ pavans have only 48 bars in all, the one ‘12-bar’ work is 72 bars long, the more numerous ‘16-bar’ works have 96 bars and the two ‘32-bar’ pieces total 192 bars.

Appreciating these differences can significantly deepen our understanding and appreciation of the fine alternating system of ‘8-bar’ and ‘16-bar’ pavans, assembled as a sequence of nine pavans in Nevell, where the major and minor modes also alternate and the set culminates with the ‘32-bar’ Passinge mesures pair in ground form (CD6).

The link between pavan and galliard was succinctly explained by Morley: ‘After every pavan usually set a galliard ... This is a lighter and more stirring kinde of dauncing than the pavane consisting of the same number of straines, and look how many foures of semibreves you put in the straine of your pavan, so many times sixe minims must you put in the straine of your galliard’ (PEIPM, p 181). Simpson adds that the galliard ‘is of a lofty and frolic movement. The Measure of it, always a Tripla of three Minims to a Time’. Although these instructions to young composers are again precise, they are a little complicated; nevertheless they merit our close attention. If the pavan contains 16-semibreve strains (that is, four groups of four semibreves), then each of the strains of the galliard, being in triple time with three minims in every bar, should have four times ‘sixe minims’ (two bars), that is, eight bars in all.

Byrd’s galliards to ‘16-bar’ pavans follow this golden rule without exception (having 8-bar strains), as do the two galliards to the ‘32-bar’ pavans (which have correspondingly doubled 16-bar strains). Curiously, however, for the six ‘short’ pavans with 8-bar strains, whose companion galliards we would expect to have only 4-bar strains, all are in the more ample ‘8-bar’ form. Byrd clearly felt that the cramped ‘4-bar’ form did not offer him the space needed for his discursive musical language to express itself comfortably. In fact, only one ‘4-bar’ galliard by Byrd survives (BK77), a work for which no pavan is known.

For both the pavans and the galliards, and many other works, the ornamentation added on the varied repeat of each strain is not left to the whim of the player. Byrd carefully composed these variations much as, a century later, French composers (and occasionally Bach as well) sometimes wrote doubles. This English art of the ‘varied repeat’, so characteristic of the music of Byrd and his pupils, was certainly not a matter of simple ‘added-on ornaments’. These repeats draw their force from the general and ever-present Elisabethan principles of rhetoric that we have seen: ‘variation’, naturally, but even more so ‘amplification’ and ‘beautification’. Variation technique is thus present in all areas of Byrd’s output: not only the obvious variations on popular songs and the grounds, but also in every pavan and every galliard, and several of his finest fancies incorporate it into the closing paragraphs (see the notes to BK46, 25, 61 [CD3/11&12, 20]; and BK63 [CD4/6]).

‘Our Phoenix’

The first listeners to Byrd’s keyboard works surely realised that they were in the presence of something quite new. Like il Divino Francesco da Milano’s audience in 1555, they must often have felt their senses ‘withdrawn to the edge of the ears, more easily to enjoy such ravishing harmony’. Morley wrote well about the effects of good music on listeners ‘(and speciallie the skilfull auditor)’; he mentions the ‘passions or motions it can stirre up’ and encourages performers ‘to draw the hearer as it were in chaines of gold by the eares’ (PEIPM, p 179) – a heavy responsibility for modern players!

Byrd himself explained that the most rewarding enjoyment of music is not a passive business but is an active collaboration between composer, player and listener. The preface he wrote in 1611 for his last published book is addressed ‘To all true lovers of Musicke’. His words also speak directly to all lovers of music of our own time, all those who learn an instrument, who go to concerts, who buy discs, in short everyone to whom music brings ‘delight’. He writes: ‘onely this I desire: that you will be but as carefull to heare them well expressed, as I have beene both in the composing and correcting of them’. He insists that a piece of music ‘that is well and artificially made cannot be well perceived nor understood at the first hearing, but the oftner you shall heare it, the better cause of liking you will discover.’ Listeners clearly have their share of work to do as well!

In 1589 Byrd had published a volume of vocal pieces with the interesting title Songs of sundrie natures, some of gravitie, and others of myrth. The 1611 volume had a similar title, Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets, some solemne, others ioyfull. In the 127 keyboard works presented on these seven discs there is certainly plenty of myrth and ioy, but such features basically occur as a contrast to Byrd’s natural artistic gravitie, mentioned by Henry Peacham. The gravitie is not simply a sort of ballast. It expresses Byrd’s innermost nature, despite his capacity to show himself ‘the jollyest fellowe’ with pieces like Sellinger’s Rownde.

Byrd’s achievement has often been underestimated, or perhaps simply overlooked. Some music lovers today still imagine that keyboard music of the Elizabethan period is primarily a matter of charming little dances, miniatures such as corantos and voltas, or pleasantly descriptive trifles with touching titles such as The Falle of the Leafe by Martin Peerson, My Dream by Giles Farnaby or My Selfe by John Bull. This is somewhat like reducing the poet Spenser to his Amoretti and The shepheardes calender, while ignoring the epic The Faerie Queen. When, in Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch asks ‘Why dost thou not go to church in a galliard, and come home in a coranto? My very walk should be a jig’ (Act I, Scene 3), the context tells us that he is being frivolous. Yet the over-used story of Queen Elizabeth dancing the volta at court remains a defining image of the nature and function of Elizabethan secular music, as one-sided and misleading as it is romantic. Such a limited perspective has perhaps been understandable until recently, since only a small proportion of Byrd’s nearly six hundred works were available on record. Appreciation (let alone affection) is difficult to acquire without direct contact with the music.

Our understanding of the scope and revolutionary nature of his instrumental music was for a long time obscured by insufficient evidence concerning the chronology of his works, the influences on them, and his personal artistic development. These matters have largely been settled now, and we can see that Byrd’s essential ground-breaking work was done between 1560 and 1591, namely a full generation before most of the so-called ‘English virginalist school’, all of whom were profoundly indebted to his creation of an original keyboard language.

Byrd’s colleague John Baldwin called him homo memorabilis (in Nevell), and dedicated 28 lines of a poem to him which ends ‘With fingers and with penne he hathe not now his peere ... Fare well melodious Birde, fare well sweet musickes frende.’ The bird image, naturally, was frequently used. We have seen that in 1597 Bull referred to his teacher as an ‘eagle...quick-sighted bird’ and Byrd himself took up the image in his mid-sixties, more modestly likening his latest compositions to a swan-song: ‘With enfeebled tongue the Swan measures sweet songs / Himself the singer at his own funeral.’ This phrase occurs in Latin, on the title page of Gradualia (1605), and the Latin dedication drives the point home by opening with the words ‘The SWAN, they say, when death is near, sings more sweetly. However little, in this my old age, I may have been able to equal the sweetness of that BIRD...’ In his last volume, in 1611, the bird imagery again returns, more subtly, in the choice of text for the first piece: ‘the eagle’s force subdues each bird that flies.’

A few months before Byrd’s death it was Henry Peacham the younger who had the last word, in The Compleat Gentleman (1622), adapting from Byrd’s first publication in 1575 the image of the phoenix, the fire-bird: ‘For the honour of our nation as for the merit of the man, I prefer above all others our phoenix, Mr. William Byrd.’ Perhaps this is why Kerman aptly sums up his keyboard music as follows: ‘He kindled English virginal music from the dryest of dry wood to a splendid blaze which crackled on under Bull and Gibbons and even set off some sparks on the Continent.’ According to ancient legend, the phoenix is reborn from the centre of a blazing fire every five hundred years. Byrd, indeed, had to wait nearly as long before modern editions, concerts and recordings have been able to bring his music back to life.

Davitt Moroney © 1999

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