The Carman’s Whistle (Air and Variations)
by William Byrd is a sequence of eight variations on a popular sixteenth-century tune. Grainger makes it the basis of his concert arrangement (omitting the first variation), filling out the texture with added octaves to the original composition for virginals, but leaving unchanged much of the original harmony and ornamentation. The ‘Carman’ of the title refers to the itinerant traders of the time known as ‘carmen’ or ‘carters’. Chappell, in his Old English Popular Music
, states that the carmen of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were famous for their musical abilities, in particular for their ability to whistle tunes—especially effective, he remarks, in the management of horses. Byrd’s tune is also associated with several ballads which Chappell found ‘not suitable for publication’ in his book, owing to their salacious content.
from notes by Barry Peter Ould © 2002