The words of the popular song on which this work is based recount a mock dispute between a woman and her husband. Her words, given above, perfectly fit Byrd’s version of the tune. Her husband replies (going on for fourteen stanzas) with a teasing tirade, ‘Wives are good and wives are bad, wives can make their husbands mad, and so does my wife too ...’. The song is mentioned in several seventeenth-century plays and poems, as well as in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Byrd harmonises the G major tune with a slightly modified version of the Italian Passamezzo moderno bass (used in an augmented form as the basis for the Quadran pavan and galliard in the same key). John Bull used the same bass in Les Buffons (and he quotes the tune of ‘John come kiss me now’ in Variation 3). Another keyboard setting, with sixteen variations, is found in BL 29996 (f. 207), composed by Thomas Tomkins’s half-brother John Tomkins (1586-1636).
This may be counted among Byrd’s most mature sets of variations, written when he was about sixty. It is one of his few works that seems to call for a keyboard with Flemish-style short-octave in the bass. The popular tunes used for Byrd’s variation sets are normally 12, 16 or 24 bars long, but here it is only 8 bars. He responds by writing sixteen variations, rather more than is his norm. What is particularly striking here is the way each variation is not an independent entity: Variation 3 starts with quaver figuration first developed in the second half of Variation 2, but closes with semiquavers further developed in Variation 4. Variation 5 takes up the figuration of Variation 3 again, but doubled in thirds, and the same figure returns in the second half of Variation 6. Variations 8 to 14 form a powerful central block in which semiquavers, then triplets, then sextuplet semiquavers, gradually overwhelm the melody (which sometimes takes refuge in the bass), but the real changes in texture almost always occur at the half-way point in the tune and carry over into the start of the next variation. The two closing variations restore a solid calm (although the Passamezzo moderno bass has now quite disappeared).
Along with The Bells (BK38), this work is perhaps Byrd’s most virtuoso, beating at their own game John Bull and Giles Farnaby, whose dazzling outbreaks of fingerwork are usually interrupted by the ends of sections. Byrd has his sights set on other prizes than simple virtuosity. No other composer of the English Elizabethan school was so capable of thinking of structures that willfully defied and contradicted the readymade sectional structure that a set of variations superficially implied at that time.
from notes by Davitt Moroney © 1999