This is really a fancy, despite being called a voluntary. It survives almost by chance since only one source (RCM
) gives it complete. 29996
has only the first half; Nevell
and another less important manuscript have only the second half. Byrd himself may have been responsible for cutting in two this early work, probably dating from the early 1560s. Perhaps he felt there was a structural problem since the whole first section seems in the Aeolian (A minor) mode, whereas the piece later settles into, and ends in, the Ionian C major mode. The musical language of the first section may be seen as a tribute to one of the earliest important figures of English keyboard music, John Redford (who died in 1547). In 1560, Byrd’s redfordian work in the ‘meane’ style (freely imitative, without being based on a plainsong) would have sounded youthful and accomplished within an established tradition, yet adventurous also. This style has everything to gain from being heard in a very large and resonant acoustic.
The voluntary is in three voices, filled with an abundance of motives that feature melody and purely rhythmic imitation of a particularly lucid and eloquent kind. The deliberately static imitative passages have an almost hypnotic effect since each paragraph is longer than the previous one. He restricts the pitches at which the melodies are heard, thereby preparing the brilliant closing paragraph wherein the number of voices is expanded to four and imitations in different rhythmic combinations and strettos are piled on at increasingly high pitches, creating a fine climax. Perhaps by 1591, the date on Nevell, he still remembered his youthful pride in this ending, while being aware that the earlier part was now a bit out-dated stylistically; this could explain why only the second half was copied into Nevell.
from notes by Davitt Moroney © 1999