Each work is a hexachord fantasia, a form of abstract monothematic keyboard composition. Morley comments on the hexachord that ‘we commonly call [it] the sixe notes, or ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la’ (PEIPM, preface ‘To the curteous reader’). These names of the first six notes of the major scale are traditionally derived from the opening syllables of the hymn UT queant laxis, REsonare fibris, MIra gestorum, FAmuli tuorum, SOLve poluti, LAbii reatum, although in the seventeenth century writers such as Playford also linked them with the elegant Latin hexameter verse UT RElivet MIserum FAtum SOLitumque LAborem.
Extremely simple early settings for keyboard are known by (John?) White and by Nicolas Strogers (probably written in the 1560s), but Byrd’s pieces appear to be the first known extended compositions of this kind. He also wrote another playful work on the ‘sixe notes’, for three hands on one keyboard and incorporating popular tunes (BK58). The form seems to have developed in the British Isles and passed from there to the Continent. Highly developed Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la settings were much favoured by composers of the next generation, including a partially canonic one by John Lugge, two works by Bull, four by Tomkins (as well as an extended piece based on Ut, mi, re) and one by Farnaby that cunningly disguises the theme in the minor. Continental composers later took up the idea, as may be seen from keyboard works by du Caurroy, Cornet, Frescobaldi, Froberger (a magnificent Fantasia, published by Kircher in 1650, and copied out by Mozart), Guillet, Hassler, Scheidt and Sweelinck; two complete elaborate settings of the Ordinary of the Mass were based on the hexachord by the Catalan composer Francisco Valls (Missa Scala Aretina, 1702, and Missa regalis, 1740).
Byrd’s majestic Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la is based on the rising and then descending 6-note scale (or hexachord). Morley calls conjunct motion of the notes of the rising and falling hexachord ‘continuall deduction’ (PEIPM, p 7). Here, since the work is in G (Mixolydian mode), the pitches are at first G, A, B, C, D, E and E, D, C, B, A, G, heard in long notes, but other pitches are heard later; each rise and fall is therefore a six-note phrase. The first entry occurs in the soprano.
Quite early on in this long piece (at bar 62), Byrd introduces a cheerful popular tune from the Low Countries (identified recently by Oliver Hirsh), known on the Continent as the Bruynsmedelijn. In Italy it was known as the ‘Flemish Bass’; Frescobaldi, some fifty years after Byrd, bases his Capriccio sopra la Bassa Fiamenga (1624) on the same melody.
It would be hard to exaggerate the revolutionary nature of this piece which so willfully departs from the G mode in a harmonic journey the likes of which had not been heard before in English music. The extraordinary climax of the work, right at the centre of the construction, is a series of entries in the soprano that themselves begin each on one note higher in the scale and push the music into uncharted harmonic territory: the sixth entry of the hexachord starts on F, the seventh on G, then A, then B flat, and finally C. This tenth entry leads Byrd to the highest note of his keyboard (top A). By the end of this climactic central paragraph, since the music has returned to more normal harmonic territory, rapid scales and dance rhythms can break out.
In the other work, the lively Ut, mi, re, the progress up and down the 6-note scale is playfully distracted by the systematic interpolation of notes a third higher, giving what Morley calls ‘the notes in disjunct deduction’ (PEIPM, p 7). The altered rising and falling hexachords become G-B, A-C, B-D, C-E and E-C, D-B, C-A, B-G, each rise and fall being broken into four pairs (rather than the 6-note phrases in the other work). Such alternating versions of the hexachord occur in several other theory books of the period, beside Morley (for example, this exact ut, mi, re is found in the Instruction methodique by Cornelius Blockfort [Corneille de Montfort], Lyon, 1571, p 16; see also Playford, A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musick, 1654, p 20).
Since in this work the hexachord usually starts and ends on chords of G major (another striking difference with the Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la), the effect is harmonically calm on the keyboard due to the unequal temperament (in which G is a gentle key). The rhythms of each statement, on the other hand, change quite a lot (unlike in the Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la). Most of the variations climax in the middle on the harmonically richer chord of E major. The perpetually varied journey towards this creates ever-renewed harmonic tensions that are much strengthened by the temperament. All this gives the work an unexpected force. Byrd’s main interest in this early piece is rhythmic interplay. Against the steady Ut, mi, re melody, an astonishing variety of counterpointed cross-rhythms deliberately creates confusion until, at the end, a majestic final statement re-establishes order.
Unlike in the Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, the statements of the theme are generally separated as if they were separate variations (at least at the opening). The variation-like character makes the work a useful means of displaying different registrations on the organ. Or perhaps it is the other way round: the varied registrations possible on the organ help make audible the structures of both these remarkable works. It was Plato who maintained that ‘beauty is form made visible’.
from notes by Davitt Moroney © 1999