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Phantasm is recognised as the most exciting viol consort active on the world scene today. This latest recording honours the most celebrated Elizabethan composer of Renaissance consort music, William Byrd. Byrd's viol music is polyphonic and full of melancholy. The performances on this recording brings out the rich, overlapping textures of the compositions creating a mesmerising sound.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Consort music for viols was still a rarefied activity in 16th-century England and had yet to be transformed into the domestic ‘home entertainment centre’ it became in the early 17th century in the houses of well-to-do gentry. It was rather at the royal court, at leading aristocratic houses, some cathedrals and theatres, and at Oxford and Cambridge where in Byrd’s day one would play viols. Still, composers leapt at the chance to develop a range of music genres freed from secular poetic texts (or ‘ditties’) and church liturgy while also devising ways to evoke references to verbal poetry and the spirituality of sacred music. Like drawing, painting, fencing and dancing, the playing of ensemble music was hailed as a pursuit to be cultivated by courtiers and gentlemen as well as by their female counterparts, though to a lesser extent. In 1561 – just as Byrd was beginning to compose his consort music – Sir Thomas Hoby published an influential English translation of Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1528) where we read that ‘just as bodily exercise maketh the body more lusty’, music ‘brings into us a new habit that is good, and a custom inclining to virtue which maketh the mind more apt to the conceiving of felicity’.
Music’s glimpse of happiness is not only a gift of God, but boasts a psychic advantage for man: as Hoby notes ‘it is a credible matter that it is acceptable unto Him, and that He hath given it unto us for a most sweet lightning of our travails and vexations’. Among the ‘chief conditions and qualities in a Courtier’ enumerated are the ability ‘to sing well upon the book’ (that is, to sight-sing), ‘to play upon the Lute, and singe to it with the ditty’ and ‘to play upon the viol and all other instruments with frets’. Fretted instruments are those whose necks are tied with seven adjustable strands of animal gut which guide the tuning of all pitches. These instruments are therefore ‘full of harmony, because the tunes of them are very perfect, and with ease may do many things upon [them] that fill the mind with the sweetness of music. And the music of a set of viols doth no less delight a man, for it is very sweet and artificial’. If one adds to this mixture Byrd’s leaning toward the serious side of life – he was ‘naturally disposed to Gravitie and Pietie’ according to Henry Peacham (1622) – we can identify the goals of delight, sweetness, melancholy and technical artifice upon which Byrd set his musical sights. His achievement, though forgotten after his death, is never less than remarkable.
Only two of Byrd’s consort works found their way into print in his own day – the Fantasia I a 4 and the Fantasia III a 6 in the Psalms, Songs and Sonnets (1611), though even these works – stamped with the composer’s seal of approval – must have been written much earlier. For a chronology of the entire corpus, one can infer a dating based on the still authoritative analyses of Oliver Neighbour, whose monograph from 1978 still best illumines the history, context and construction of these marvellous works.
The implied time line suggests that Byrd began with the polyphonic enhancement of devotional hymns (measured out in semibreves) from the dusk-to-dawn offices of Vespers, Compline and Lauds before moving to the equally venerable tradition of the In nomine, a mystical consort rhapsody on a famous snatch of sacred vocal music (by John Taverner) in which the cantus firmus sounds in breves – twice as slow as in the hymns – and can no longer be related to the words of the original plainsong. From there, after a dense early experiment in Fantasia a 6 – which finally ‘fugues’ on a Tudor five-note motto called ‘Praise him praiseworthy’ – Byrd tried his hand at contrasting sets of highly artificial variations (or ‘descant divisions’) on bass grounds or popular tunes such as ‘The leaves be green’ in which the subject keeps migrating between parts and keys. He then takes on the mimetic gestures of dancing in writing stately pavans and elegant galliards – some further works a 5 might still be salvaged from his keyboard music – before developing a sectional fantasia which unexpectedly quotes popular ballads (‘The Sick Tune’ or ‘Greensleeves’) as well as including forays to the dance floor with the easily recognised leaps of the galliard. The question of how to end these fantasies and grounds seems to have plagued Byrd enough that he devises a novel instrumental apotheosis as a worldly equivalent to the ‘Amen’ in his sacred polyphony (for example, Track 16, 4:30 and Track 27, 4:50), thereby raising the tonal register and the value of the genre. Finally, at the end of his compositional travels in writing for consort, Byrd strips away every sign of the outside world – dancing, song, religion – in the three- voiced fantasies, and, in the most compressed form imaginable, crafts three musical jewels. Here, following Thomas Morley (1597), ‘more art may be shown than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing, but may add, diminish, and alter at his pleasure’. In taking a succession of unmarked ‘points’, each laden with its own refined gradients of character,
Byrd ‘wrests and turns [the point] as he wishes’, forming a kaleidoscope of intense yearning and delight. At times it is hard to believe there are only three voices.
Our recording – which in its eighty minutes omits only the spurious or inadequately reconstructed works such as the In nomine I a 5 and other incomplete hymn settings – attempts a continuous flow between the contrasting musical genres. In so doing, we weave in and out of an Elizabethan tableau where the daily, even bawdy, pleasures of dance and popular song are calmed by quiet moments of rapt meditation in the devotional hymn settings and elevated with the more ecstatic confessions of the In nomines. In the lusty variations (Browning and the Goodnight Ground), and in the cerebral fantasies, one relishes the dense, democratic counterpoint along with the canons and ‘fugueing’ as the work of an extraordinary intellect who never fails to flatter the senses. What’s remarkable is that the genre of each piece is often unrecognisable from its opening gesture, making the journey through Byrd’s consorts a tantalising voyage of discovery. Though he builds on the work of his predecessors and contemporaries such as Robert Parsons, Alfonso Ferrabosco and Robert White, Byrd always manages to turn an imitated theme or gesture into a quite inimitable invention which remains wholly his own.
Some Textual Notes
The Fantasia I a 6 exists in a later version as a Latin motet Laudate pueri (and even later as an English anthem Behold now praise the Lord) from which we’ve taken Byrd’s ‘improved’ dotted figure in one rising ‘point’ of imitation. The text to the tune called ‘Browning, my dear’ starts:
The leaves be green, the nuts be brown,
They hang so high, they will not come down.
The cheeky duple-time quotation from the song ‘Greensleeves’ which appears in the Fantasia II a 6 (Track 16, 3:05) refers to the refrain:
Greensleeves was all my joy,
Greensleeves was my delight:
Greensleeves was my hart of gold,
And who but Lady Greensleeves.
The ‘Sick tune’ appears in canon in the two treble viols midway into the Fantasia a 5 (Track 9, 3:02) and derives from a ballad called ‘Captain Car’ recounting a bad night at sea:
Sick, sick and very sick,
And sick and like to die;
The sickest night that I abode,
Good Lord have mercy on me.
Shakespeare refers to the ballad in Much Ado About Nothing (III, iv), when Hero asks, ‘Why, how now! Do you speak in the sick tune?’ to which Beatrice replies, ‘I am out of all other tune, methinks.’
The verses of the hymn settings we play are those which exist intact or have been reliably reconstructed. Because of the mismatch between the numbers of Byrd’s polyphonic verses and the strophes of the hymn itself, it is unlikely that the pieces were intended to be alternated with monophonic chant in a liturgical setting, though they might certainly be performed that way today. Sermone blando is for Lauds from Low Sunday until Ascension and begins:
Tristes erant apostolic
de nece sui Domini:
quem poena mortis crudely
servi damnarant impii.
Sermone blando angelus
‘In Galilaea Dominus
videndus est quantocius.’
The Apostles’ hearts were full of pain
for their dear Lord so lately slain:
that Lord his servants’ wicked train
with bitter scorn had dared arraign.
With gentle voice the Angel gave
the women tidings at the grave;
Forthwith your Master shall ye see:
He goes before to Galilee.’
Christe qui Lux es is from Compline:
Christe, qui, lux es et dies,
noctis tenebras detegis,
lucisque lumen crederis,
lumen beatis praedicans:
Precamur, sancte Domine,
hac nocte nos custodias;
sit nobis in te requies,
quietas horas tribue.
Christ, thou who art the light and day,
who chasest nightly shades away,
thyself the Light of Light confessed,
and promiser of radiance blest:
O holy Lord, we pray to thee,
throughout the night our guardian be;
in thee vouchsafe us to repose,
all peaceful till the night shall close.
Te lucis also stems from Compline and includes the same poignant fall of the minor third as in Christe qui Lux es.
Te lucis ante terminum,
Rerum Creator, poscimus,
Ut pro tua clementia,
sis praesul et custodia.
Procul recedant somnia,
Et noctium phantasmata:
Hostemque nostrum comprime,
Ne polluantur corpora.
Praesta, Pater piisime,
cum Spiritu Paraclito,
Patrique compar Unice
regnans per omnes saeculum.
To thee before the close of day,
Creator of the world, we pray
That, with thy wonted favour, thou
Wouldst be our guard and keeper now.
From all ill dreams defend our sight,
From fears and terrors of the night;
Withhold from us our ghostly foe,
That spot of sin we may not know.
O Father, that we ask be done,
Through Jesus Christ, thine only Son,
Who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
Doth live and reign eternally.
Christe redemptor omnium is a hymn from Vespers at Christmas:
Christe, Redemptor omnium,
ex Patre, Patris unice,
solus ante principium
Tu lumen, tu splendor Patris,
tu spes perennis omnium,
intende quas fundunt preces
tui per orbem servuli.
Jesu, the Father’s only Son,
whose death for all redemption won,
before the worlds, of God most high,
begotten all ineffably.
The Father’s Light and Splendor Thou
their endless Hope to Thee that bow:
accept the prayers and praise today
that through the world Thy servants pay.
I owe a great debt to Oliver Neighbour for helping me with decisions on sources, versions and authenticity, allowing me to exploit his expert knowledge of – and enthusiasm for – Byrd’s consort music; to Warwick Edwards for his generosity in giving us permission to play his reconstruction of Fantasia III a 4; and to Katie Hunter who kindly gave permission to record from the editions of Northwood Music and make use of George Hunter’s reconstructed Galliard a 5.
Laurence Dreyfus © 2011