The words of the title given in Nevell clearly fit the popular Elizabethan tune which is the basis of this substantial set of 22 variations, although the more usual title in other manuscripts is taken from the opening words of the song, given above. (Pilgrims were generally known as ‘palmers’ since those that returned from the Holy Land traditionally carried a palm branch or leaf.) The road to Walsingham in the county of Norfolk, lead to the Priory at the famous centre of pilgrimage, a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary who was said to have appeared there in medieval times. But in 1538 her image was taken to Chelsea and burned. Pilgrimages were frequently attacked by their protestant opponents who accused them of being occasions for encounters of a non-religious kind: ‘The pilgrimages undertaken on pretence of religion were often productive of affairs of gallantry, and led the votaries to no other shrine than that of Venus’, according to Bishop Percy (1765).
It is easy to see that the words of the song do not quite fit the third line of Byrd’s 8-bar tune. Shakespeare seems to have known the melody used here. Ophelia in her madness sings a quatrain traditionally associated with the tune that does fit it perfectly: ‘How should I your true love know / From another one? / By his cockle hat and staff / And his sandal shoon’. When the Queen asks her what she means, Ophelia continues with another quatrain that again perfectly fits the tune used by Byrd: ‘He is dead and gone, lady, / He is dead and gone; / At his head a grass-green turf, / At his heels a stone’ (Hamlet, Act IV, sc 5).
There is no apparent link with Queen Elizabeth’s tireless chief administrator and Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham (c1530-1590); he was a great patron of the arts (Spenser refers to him as ‘the Great Maecenas of this age’), but also an ardent anti-Catholic. It is not impossible that the popularity of the tune in the Elizabethan period drew on the coincidence of his name and the song. It continued to find favour throughout the next century, as is shown by J. Phillips’s translation of Don Quixote (1687) where mention is made of ‘an infinite number of little birds, with painted wings of various colours, hopping from branch to branch, all naturally singing “Walsingham” and “John come kiss me now”’. Byrd’s Walsingham variations, then, would appear to be a purely secular matter.
Relatively simple lute settings are known by John Johnson and Edward Collard. Dowland used the tune for two lute works, the finer of which is in galliard form. Anthony Holborne also published a short, but harmonically rich lute version. John Bull’s extraordinary set of thirty keyboard variations on the same tune (in A minor) is given pride of place in the FVB, as the opening work; it acquired an almost mythical reputation in the early seventeenth century on account of its unprecented keyboard technique (including the crossing of hands) and was included by Thomas Tomkins on both his lists of Lessons of worthe.
Byrd’s G minor set of 22 variations on the famous tune was, not surprisingly, also included on Tomkins’s two lists. It was undoubtedly written before all these other versions and probably dates from the late 1570s, when Bull was still a child. In the first five variations, the melody migrates about the texture, as announced by the first statement where different phrases are presented at different octaves and switch between B flat major and G minor harmonies. (This may be a deliberate reference to the text of the song, which is in dialogue form.) The tune is heard in the alto (Variations 2 and 4), the soprano (Variation 3), and then the bass (Variation 5). From here on it alternates between soprano and tenor until the important Variation 20, near the end, where it is once again heard in the bass. In his last variation, Byrd again presents it in the soprano, but with an even higher descant above it.
Walsingham may best be heard as four larger groups of five variations, separated by a pair of extra variations right in the middle (1-5, 5-10; 11-12; 13-17, 18-22). The veritable arsenal of novel keyboard techniques deployed in this beautifully proportioned work must have seemed astonishing in the 1570s, and clearly suggest the extent to which Byrd created almost single-handedly a virtuoso musical language that was flexible and entirely natural to the keyboard.
from notes by Davitt Moroney © 1999