Byrd first describes the six players in six short sections (each of which has a varied repeat). The first two (not holding hands) are in ‘8-bar’ galliard form, a rather solid and heavy section followed by a more dancing and sprightly passage (possibly supposed to represent the man then the woman); they each firmly define the tonality of G major, anchoring the whole of Byrd’s exceptionally long work. The third and fourth players (musically much more similar, so probably representing the couple holding hands in ‘Hell’) are appropriately represented by a pair of jigs, since these players have to run about a lot. Their music modulates to D major and back to G. The more serious fifth and sixth players are presented in alman style; their music, strikingly, starts in A minor but then moves back to G major. The first of this third pair (i.e. the fifth player) quotes from the popular ‘Browning’ melody (used elsewhere by Byrd as the basis of a splendid work for 5-part consort).
After a hundred bars the scene is now set and the fun can start. The manuscript explains that ‘battle is joined’, and after some playful trumpet-calls Byrd quotes from a popular ‘battle’ tune of the period; this passage is presented in the energetic jig rhythm of the hand-holding couple in ‘Hell’, who are clearly running about the whole field. After further adventures (during four short alman-style sections), the closing section starts. It is in langorous pavan style. The music settles back to G major for a 24-bar section (plus its varied repeat) before a short coda brings the work to an end.
Whatever new couples have been formed by changing partners, by the end of the game everyone is clearly happy, even dreamily content. The Barley Break is thus a sort of medley of thirteen short dance sections, presenting galliard, alman, jig, pavan and other styles, quotations from at least two popular tunes, and above all a careful harmonic scheme that supports the whole over nearly ten minutes. Neighbour remarks that it is a kind of domestic version of Byrd’s more famous The Battell.
from notes by Davitt Moroney © 1999