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The bells, BK38
FVB (No 69). [Neighbour, p 122]

'Byrd: The Complete Keyboard Music' (CDS44461/7)
Byrd: The Complete Keyboard Music
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'Byrd: Keyboard Music' (CDA66558)
Byrd: Keyboard Music
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The bells, BK38
The ‘bells’ of the title would appear to be only two in number. They can be heard in the bass throughout the work, forming an exceptionally short ground. The downward scales heard in the second part of the work are probably not intended to sound bell-like and are unlikely to be the bells of the title; in the sixteenth century, bell towers did not have enough bells to sound a scale or to do ‘change ringing’. Byrd’s piece evokes a simple belfry such as he might have heard in the Essex countryside. One of Byrd’s most famous works, it is difficult to date but was no doubt written before 1600. (A complex orchestral version made by Carl Orff in 1928, titled Entrata, helped to make it more known in the earlier twentieth century.) Other bell pieces of the period include Thomas Robinson’s Twenty waies upon the Bells for two lutes, and the closing section of the keyboard work A Battle and no Battle, probably by John Bull where, after a section marked ‘The knell, first slow, then quick ten times’, a short passage marked ‘Bells of Osney, quick, 20 times’ occurs, bringing the work to a close. Byrd’s work is a ‘short’ ground, being based on the shortest such bass pattern known in English keyboard music, just one bar with two notes in it, C and D alternating hypnotically. In this performance I have deliberately allowed the harpsichord to ring as much as possible, with minimal damping of the strings, in order to accentuate the bell-like effect at the start, further accentuated by the temperament and the C major tonality, chacteristic of the Ionian mode. Similar one-bar basses were also later used in Italy, as is shown by the Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna, ‘Hor ch’é tempo di dormire’, by Tarquinio Merula (1594-1665), based on two similarly alternating adjacent bass notes (A and B flat). Since Byrd’s aim is to exploit the hypnotic, unchanging sound of the bells in the bass, it would be futile to search here for harmonic variety. Instead, he gradually builds up large paragraphs of sound, cells of imitative discourse and then of brilliant keyboard figuration, which outline a sophisticated structure quite independent of the innocent little one-bar ground. The extraordinary outpouring of rapid semiquavers towards the end make this piece one of Byrd’s most virtuoso, deploying a keyboard technique considerably in excess of anything found in the music of his contemporaries, or indeed in his own music, apart from Jhon come kisse me now (BK81). Yet simple digital display for its own sake was never of great interest for Byrd and at the end he calms the music down again with a fine decrescendo of movement and energy. (The FVB text is clearly defective and has been reordered here by inverting the sections numbered ‘4’ and ‘5’.)

from notes by Davitt Moroney © 1999

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