This work survives in a rather garbled fashion in four sources, including Nevell (No 8). The earliest but most coherent is the first one of the two different versions found in the FVB, whose order for the variations I have adopted here (different from the Musica Britannica text). In the second FVB version (No 276) the work is entitled Pescodd Time, owing to the fact that the ground on which it is constructed is the bass to the popular tune of that name (‘peas-cod time’ referred to the season when peas were gathered). Orlando Gibbons wrote a fine set of variations on the melody itself. On the other hand, John Johnson’s excellent series of nine variations on The New Hunt’s Up, for two lutes, is based on the same ground used by Byrd; it was probably written in the 1580s but no doubt post-dates Byrd’s work, which was probably composed in the 1570s.
The ground itself is a ‘long’ (16-bar) one, in C major. There are eleven variations. After the usual slow start, the wistful, lengthy paragraphs build up a powerful head of steam over the first four statements of the bass. Here Byrd explores the whole upper range of the keyboard unusually early, perhaps a sign of his relative inexperience. Quaver movement increases, imitations tumble in ever closer to each other, and wild cross-rhythms threaten to disturb everything. However, suddenly Byrd brings back order with the stately introduction over his bass of the popular Elizabethan tune The Nine Muses, although this foursquare tune is fitted willfully, indeed squarely, across the triple-time bass. Some trumpet-calls and dancing triplets then lead him into the brilliant final paragraphs and a sonorously pompous closing variation. The Nevell scribe, John Baldwin, added at the end of this fine work the words laus sit Deo (‘praise be to God’).
from notes by Davitt Moroney © 1999