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Miserere I, BK66
Christ Church, Oxford, Music MS 371. [Neighbour, p 108]

'Byrd: The Complete Keyboard Music' (CDS44461/7)
Byrd: The Complete Keyboard Music
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'Byrd: Keyboard Music' (CDA66558)
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Miserere I, BK66
Although the second Miserere is the only one formally attributed to Byrd in the source (which dates from the early 1570s), presumably the first is also by him since the two follow each other without a break in the manuscript. It would be rash to infer that all such pieces on a plainsong were automatically designed as organ music or necessarily had any liturgical function. The English tradition of writing settings on the plainsong for the antiphon at Compline, Miserere mihi, Domine, et exaudi orationem meam (‘Have mercy on me, Lord, and hear my prayer’) had become a purely secular, even scholarly, exercise. Writing simple 2-part counterpoint upon a plainsong was the traditional way for young sixteenth-century composers to start learning their art, and the choice of the text was surely a private joke; several generations of young English musicians struggled with their counterpoint exercises upon this plainsong, whose Latin text could also be translated ‘Have mercy on me, master’.

Such pieces also served a second pedagogical purpose in training the fingers of would-be keyboard players (Thomas Tomkins describes them as ‘Pretty wayes for young beginners to looke on’). The quiet, expressive clavichord was traditionally the instrument for beginners. Byrd’s predecessors at Lincoln Cathedral had to teach the most talented choirboys the organ and the ‘clavychordes’, and no doubt Byrd did also. I have used it here as an acknowledgement of Byrd’s youth when he wrote these pieces, during the time when he was ‘bred up to Musick under Tallis’, but these little works also bring to mind all the young students whom Byrd later formed, many of whom went on to become eminent composers.

The greatest masters used the Miserere too, in particular for writing canons. Tallis’s non-liturgical setting of the words Miserere nostri Domine is a stupendous double canon for seven voices. 116 canons on the Miserere by John Bull survive, but have still never been printed. Byrd and the elder Alfonso Ferrabosco, working in ‘friendly emulation’, are known to have each composed (probably between 1572 and 1578) a series of ‘forty waies’ in canon based on the Miserere. Twenty years later, Morley notes that the two composers could have made infinitely more at their pleasure, and recommends the pieces to his readers as follows: ‘I would consell you diligentlie to peruse those waies which my loving Maister (never without reverence to be named of the musicians), Mr Bird, and Mr Alfonso, in a vertuous contenion in love betwixt themselves, made upon the plainsong of Miserere, but a contention, as I saide, in love [...] without malice, envie, or backbiting; but by great labour, studie and paines, each making [the] other censure what they had done’ (PEIPM, p 115). Unfortunately the collection is now lost, despite apparently having been ready for printing, arranged for the lute, in 1603 under the title Medulla Musicke: Sucked out of the Sappe of Two of the most famous Musitians that ever were in this land. 40tie Severall Waies ... 2 Partes in One upon the Playne Songe ‘Miserere’ ...transposed to the Lute by Thomas Robinson.

Nevertheless, the two little pieces in G (Mixolydian) heard here are not canonic. They must be among his earliest surviving keyboard pieces, possibly written in the 1550s. The first one is in only two voices. The right hand is freely composed, without reference to the chant. It works its way, somewhat self-consciously, up to the highest note of the keyboard (although, at the end, it has a little difficulty getting up there). The left hand, on the other hand, is based directly on the plainsong, which is here ‘broken’ up, creating new melodies by ornamenting the chant in such a way that one (and only one) of each of the notes in a bar is taken from the Miserere plainsong; the other notes are interspersed to give the chant an entirely new melodic clothing that completely hides it. This is a compositional exercise in the traditional technique known as cantus fractus, or ‘breaking the plainsong’. Morley describes this in detail (PEIPM, pp 96-98), making the telling comment that here music is ‘made out of it and not uppon it’.

Byrd’s second setting is in three voices, and the chant is now audible, being placed in the long notes of the top part. This work’s quiet charm impressed Gustave Reese fifty years ago. It is composed in the complementary cantus firmus technique, being ‘made uppon’ the plainsong and not ‘out of it’. The two lower parts are in faster notes, and their duet turns out to be subtly expressive, moving mostly in unsettling 3-bar phrases, each of which comes to a slightly different and deliberately hesitating cadence. After the two voices of the first setting, and the three heard in this one, the longer and more confident closing phrase leads to the entry of a fourth voice in the last bar, enriching the harmonies and bringing the pair of settings to a well-prepared end.

Another example of the cantus fractus technique is BK50, the early 2-voice setting made out of Gloria tibi trinitas, while Parson’s In Nomine (BK51) is a complementary setting made on the same plainsong, in cantus firmus technique. A second version of these two Miserere settings can be heard on the organ, and at low pitch.

from notes by Davitt Moroney © 1999

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