Thomas Tomkins referred to this complex canonic work as ‘An Excellent Fantasi of Mr Birdes, Two partes in one in the 4th above’ and included it on his first list of Lessons of worthe
. Titled Phantasia
in some sources, it is a keyboard arrangement of a now lost fancy for five-part consort, probably dating from the early 1580s. Although Byrd had acquired, perhaps from Tallis, a particular liking for canonic writing and was a great master at it, nevertheless this and The seventh pavian,Canon 2 parts in 1 [at the 5th below]
are his only keyboard works that are in canon throughout, and the canonic technique is exactly the same in both works. In this Lesson of voluntarie
(in effect, a fancy or fantasia), the non-canonic voices enter first, imitatively, in the order alto, tenor, bass. The canon, which is a strict one from the start to the finish some 140 bars later, is found between the two top parts (which enter after seven and nine bars, respectively): the lower soprano part leads (starting on G) and then, six beats later, the top soprano part follows (starting on C, according to the technique ‘two partes in one in the 4th above’). From there until the end of the work, the top soprano copies exactly what has been heard (or sometimes what has been mischeviously hidden) in the leading voice.
Although the canon adds a somewhat learned touch to this Lesson in C major (Ionian mode), Byrd soon manipulates it to his own ends, and it becomes a means of exploiting increasingly rapid, insistent and playful imitations in which the three other voices all join as best they can. The second section contains clearly audible (but no less canonic) quotations from the popular Elizabethan tune Sicke, sicke and very sicke – a joke that would not have been lost on listeners of the day. This leads to jig-like triplet rhythms before the third section returns to a more serious polyphonic discourse. Each one of the fourteen different melodic phrases evolves effortlessly from the previous one, in a seamless sequence. The fancy closes with a fine musical paragraph reminiscent of the sections (often marked ‘drag’ ) with which English composers up until Purcell slowed down the tempo at the end of their grandest viol Fancies.
from notes by Davitt Moroney © 1999