The Elizabethan ballad The Lover’s complaint for the Loss of his Lass starts with these words. The tune was also adapted to several ‘Lamentations’ – that is, ballads supposed to recount the last words of notorious criminals, printed and sold at public executions. The origins of the melody may be considerably older still, however, since the opening is similar to the Italian Renaissance chanson Fortuna desperata by Antoine Busnois (c1430-1492), the theme of which was reused in early sixteenth-century works by Josquin, Obrecht, Isaac and Senfl.
The two main sources for Byrd’s setting simply call it Fortune, but Clement Matchett’s Manuscript (from Lord Dalhousie’s collection in the National Library of Scotland) gives the title as Farwell delighte, Fortune my foe, indicative of the sombre mood and compatible with the character of the ballad, and possibly indicating a variant set of words to the song. By Byrd’s time the tune was clearly considered to be English in origin, as is shown by the setting called Engelsche Fortuyn by Byrd’s younger contemporary Sweelinck, and by the version called Cantilena Anglica Fortunae by Sweelinck’s pupil Scheidt; it also occurs in numerous Dutch ballad books. In Matchett’s Manuscript a copying date of 19 August 1612 is given although the work was probably composed at least thirty years earlier.
The mood of Byrd’s gentle introspective work owes much to the pavan-like character of its opening. It survives incomplete in Forster (lacking bars 25 to 36). The first statement of the 12-bar melody is followed by three further variations whose increasing complexity never obscures the melody. The harmonies bear a clear relation to the Passamezzo antico bass (compare, for example, The nynth pavian, the Passinge mesures, BK2a). Dowland seems to have paid homage to Byrd’s version by borrowing from it in his own lute setting of the tune (later turned into a lute duet with the name Complaint). Byrd’s first variations indeed have something of a lute-like texture about them.
from notes by Davitt Moroney © 1999