Various versions of the title of Byrd’s piece are found (in the FVB: The Woods so Wild; and in another source: mr birds wandringe the woodes).The 8-bar melody has the beautiful characteristic of alternating two bars of F major with two bars of G major, creating gentle harmonic shocks not only throughout each variation but also between variations.
Byrd’s setting is dated 1590 in both Nevell and the FVB, and is the only piece by him to be precisely dated in the sources. It also survives in five other manuscripts, a sure sign of its popularity. Variations 12 and 13 are missing in Nevell, probably an indication that they were composed later, as part of a revision. Nevertheless, the original structure in Nevell is excellent. The melody is clearly audible in the first half of the work, migrating in pitch from the alto register (Variations 1, 3-6) and the soprano (Variations 2, 7). For Variations 8 to 12 it more or less disappears, although the ear supplies it without problem. For the last two variations it returns, first in the alto then triumphantly at the upper octave for the last variation. This is a newly thought-out approach to Byrd’s habit of adding a descant for the last variation; the melody, by being lifted up to the top of the instrument, itself serves here as a sort of descant, supported by rich 6-part chords. Unusually for Byrd’s variations, a little coda extends the cadence to reinforce the sense of finality.
from notes by Davitt Moroney © 1999