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Keyboard works by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, John Bull & Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
Mishka Rushdie Momen (piano)
RECORD OF THE MONTH Available Friday 28 June 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: October 2023
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Annabel Connellan
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: 28 June 2024
Total duration: 77 minutes 35 seconds

Cover artwork: Portrait of a Venetian lady ‘La Bella Nani’ (c1560, detail) by Paolo Caliari Veronese (1528-1588)
Louvre, Paris / Peter Willi / Bridgeman Images

‘Encountering a palace of riches’ is how pianist (and Hyperion debutante) Mishka Rushdie Momen describes her experience of playing Tudor keyboard music, a varied selection of which is included here. It’s a description which could apply equally to the listener discovering the music in performances as convincingly idiomatic as these.

At the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, thirty pilgrims begin their journey to Thomas Becket’s shrine by gathering at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. For me this detail acutely captures the sometimes mirage-like experience of reaching into the past. The Tabard Inn no longer exists—but one can go to Talbot Yard and stand where it once stood. Indeed to this day, some pilgrims still follow this route from London to Canterbury, which dates from the time of the ancient Britons and which Becket is believed to have taken.

Perhaps for the first time in English literature, we encounter in Chaucer’s characters people who strike today’s reader as being familiar and modern. From the irreverent and outspoken ‘Wife of Bath’ to the duplicitous ‘Pardoner’, whose introductory prologue seems to express Chaucer’s own bitter disappointment in the Church and its guardians, the pilgrims almost burst from their pages with vivid portraits of a true cross-section of society which bears much resemblance to our own. This is part of the magic of conversing with history—namely, our instinct to pull the long-dead and the legendary into the present, and to have them speak to us about our contemporary world and the fundamentals of human nature. Similarly, the Renaissance music I have chosen for this album appears to belong to a distant, intriguing culture but still resonates with a strong and immediate emotional impact.

Thinking about pilgrimages in England also involves confronting a great absence. English culture has been predominantly Protestant for half a millennium and the cult of St Thomas no longer exists. Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, described by Erasmus as ‘a shryne of gold … [where] all thynges dyd shyne, florishe’, was demolished in 1538 by the agents of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII and architect of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The relics of Thomas Becket also vanished; in her novel The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel suggests they might have been thrown into Cromwell’s cellar. Subsequently, a royal proclamation ordered the destruction of any image or mention of Becket in the Church; in Missal books, Becket’s name is redacted more consistently than references to the Pope.

Our picture of the Renaissance is severely fractured and incomplete as a result of the sheer scale of the cultural vandalism caused by the English Reformation. Many paintings and works of art were destroyed in this Puritan environment. A rare example of a medieval wall painting which has survived is in Pickering, Yorkshire, where I gave a recital for the Ryedale Festival underneath an image depicting the chaplain Edward Grim pleading with the four knights of Henry II who murdered Thomas Becket. Over 700 Catholic religious institutions were destroyed between 1536 and 1540, and a great number of trained musicians and composers lost their positions. Some would have found work in the new Church of England and others in secular environments such as private homes, but I wonder if a wealth of musical treasures and talent may have been squandered.

Into the turbulence which characterized the end of Henry VIII’s reign, William Byrd, the first composer represented on this recording, was born to Catholic parents, Thomas and Margery. We know very little about his early life, even his exact birth date, although his will of 1622 describes him as ‘in the 80th year of mine age’. In 1563, he won a prestigious job as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, marking the start of a period which saw the composition of many of his greatest keyboard pieces, including the extraordinary fantasia in A minor (track 3). But in 1569, in an incident illustrating the religious iconoclasm of the time, he was reprimanded by the Puritan chapter of the Cathedral for his extended organ improvisations, whose elaborate flamboyance was considered popish. His salary was suspended for some eight months. Byrd’s committed Catholicism and lifelong recusancy is well documented, but nevertheless he enjoyed a close association with the Protestant Elizabeth I, a musical and pragmatic queen who herself sang, played the virginals and lute, and would dance six or seven galliards in the mornings for her exercise. I find it astonishing and moving to think of the determination it must have taken for Byrd to navigate the religious and cultural battles of his era, whilst expanding the horizons of English music with pieces of astounding invention, skill and beauty.

Byrd’s younger contemporary Dr John Bull was a scandalous and colourful character. Like Byrd, he was sworn in as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Bull was also elected as the first Public Reader in Music at Gresham College, London, but he was dismissed in 1607 for fathering a child with the woman who was yet to become his wife. Six years later, Bull was charged with committing adultery with his maidservant as well as with assaulting a priest in full view of the congregation. The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote: ‘The man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals.’ Bull fled to Flanders, claiming to have been persecuted for his Catholicism, but possibly he was escaping from the revelation of even more serious wrongdoings. During his self-imposed exile he probably met Sweelinck, whose music owes much to the influence of Byrd, and reflects the richness of the cultural exchange between England and the Netherlands.

Orlando Gibbons was the youngest of the three English composers on this album, and with his fellow Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, Byrd and Bull, in c1612/13 he jointly published Parthenia, the first volume of music for keyboard printed in England. Some of Gibbons’s most profound works are to be found there, including the Pavan and Galliard ‘Lord Salisbury’ and the strikingly original and complex Fantazia of foure parts.

All the works on this recording are ostensibly secular, but I feel they are linked inextricably to the Reformation. They are wonderfully timeless and yet bear testimony to the character of the late Tudor age. Works of marvellous ingenuity, beauty and charm, they fall into three basic categories: dances, such as pavans, galliards and almans; fantasias; and variations—often quoting or based on popular songs.

Elizabeth I’s reign was a golden age of music and literature. At one point Byrd, Bull and Shakespeare even lived in the same parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate. Well-known tunes of the day peep out throughout Shakespeare’s works: Callino Casturame is quoted in Henry V; Whoop, do me no harm, good man appears in A Winter’s Tale; and the ballad Walsingham is sung by Ophelia in Hamlet. The era was also marked by contradictions, some of which I feel have parallels with our present day. In contrast to the vast and conspicuous wealth of the nobility, the country at large suffered from extreme poverty. There were strong trade routes between England and the Netherlands but also a sense of isolation from Europe and a constant threat of Catholic uprisings. Fortunately for music and musicians, Elizabeth, for all her avowed Protestant beliefs, chose to maintain the ritual elements of church services and permitted the singing of hymns ‘for the comforting of such that delight in music’. This exemplifies the way that in practice she forged a compromise, a broad church inclusive of diverse religious views—an outlook with which the Church of England is still associated and which I think makes it culturally distinct from other forms of Protestantism.

The seismic events of the Tudor age continue even today to exercise a visceral hold on our imagination, and I believe music forms a vital part of this fascinating fabric. I hope the selection of works on this recording provides a glimpse into the essence of the music composed by some of the era’s most important figures.

*   *   *

For me, playing keyboard music of the Renaissance in a re-formed guise on the modern piano has never felt anachronistic. The intimate nature of being a single player alone at a keyboard is a distinctive experience which is similar on virginals, organ and grand piano. Even though the sonorities of the various different keyboard instruments of the time varied so much, sometimes the same pieces were performed on instruments as contrasting as the harpsichord and the organ. The physical relationship between the player and the instrument is often fundamental to the music itself. For example, in The bells and in Walsingham I find the sheer delight Byrd and Bull take in sweeping runs and elaborate figuration to be completely infectious and perfectly suited to the clarity and resonance of a modern instrument. Equally, the richness and darkness of the middle and lower registers of the piano can create a wonderful atmosphere of solemnity in a memorial work such as Gibbons’s ‘Lord Salisbury’ pavan.

In general, rather than trying to recreate the sound of an older instrument, I have aimed to convey the spirit and vividness of the music in a way which feels natural and true to composer and instrument alike. For instance, I use both the sustaining and the soft pedals, but hopefully employ a range of colours which responds to the atmosphere of the music, whether it is an intimate piece such as Bull’s My grief, or a work like the elaborate and expansive hexachord fantasia by Sweelinck.

The issue of fingering raises some interesting questions. The conventions of Renaissance fingering patterns, such as alternating two fingers in scale passages and avoiding the use of the thumb, sometimes seem to be reflected by the phrasing of the music. So occasionally I do adopt the practice but for the most part I feel these are techniques particular to the virginals and unsuited to the mechanism of the piano.

There is a lot of inconsistency in the notation of ornaments and widely differing views on their interpretation. I think this allows players considerable freedom in their execution; because of the more resonant sound of the piano compared to the harpsichord, I have tried to adapt my ornaments in certain cases to the beautiful Steinway I used for this recording, just as one might do when playing this music on the organ.

In Henry V, Pistol is greeted by a French soldier, who says: ‘Je pense que vous etes gentilhomme de bonne qualite.’ Curiously, Pistol replies: ‘Qualtitie! Calen o custure me!’ This is surely a reference to the popular song Callino Casturame, which Shakespeare would have expected his audience to recognize. Byrd’s variations on this song are beautifully pure and uncomplicated, gradually becoming more decorated, with the left hand taking on a more expressive role.

The paired Praeludium and Fantasia, BK12 and BK13, show Byrd at his most imaginative and spontaneous. The fluidity with which one theme provokes and passes into the next is truly remarkable, moving from the spare, single-voice opening theme through much greater complexity to the brilliant coda.

Byrd’s setting of John Dowland’s late sixteenth-century hit song Flow, my tears (originally published as ‘Pavana Lachrymae’) is far more elaborately embellished than Dowland’s original. The decorated writing almost gives it an improvisatory feeling reminiscent of a fantasia and perhaps also offers more hope. (Referring to this song which was so closely associated with him, Dowland, famed for his mournful pieces and nature, would often sign his name ‘Jo: dolandi de Lachrimae’.)

The woods so wild (here ‘Will yow walke the woods so wylde’—the title appears in many forms) was one of Henry VIII’s favourite contemporary tunes and was quoted by Dowland in his song Can she excuse my wrongs?. James Joyce’s paean to Isobel Porter in Finnegans Wake—‘wildwood’s eyes and primarose hair, quietly, all the woods so wild, in mauves of moss and daphnedews’—was also inspired by the tune, deliberately and thrillingly mimicking its rhythms.

Byrd’s mastery of variation writing enables him, having begun with the simplest presentations of the song, to move seamlessly into abandoning the melody entirely in variations 8-11 (1'53-2'54) without losing the identity of the piece. He then re-introduces the tune with a feeling of confirmation in the final coda (3'26).

The next three pieces are a pair of almans and a ground (a type of variation writing) by Orlando Gibbons. In contrast to his longer works, these shorter pieces—Welcome home, The King’s Jewel and Whoop, do me no harm, good man—reveal Gibbons at his simplest and most beguiling.

Gibbons’s Fantazia of foure parts is, to my mind, one of the jewels of Renaissance keyboard polyphony. It somehow captures the feeling of freedom inherent in a fantasia whilst adhering to the strict form of an Italian canzona—a form of polyphonic writing that was popular during the Renaissance. In his book English Keyboard Music before the Nineteenth Century, John Caldwell notes seven distinct themes in the Fantazia, introduced in succession. As he suggests, there are possibly even more, but Gibbons’s ingenious integration of the themes into the counterpoint often makes it difficult to individuate shorter or more secondary themes and fragments.

The first two pieces by Bull recorded here are a companion pair of jigs: My self and My grief. Their deceptive simplicity and brevity means they could easily be overlooked, but I find My grief, in particular, to be extremely touching and full of interest, and to have more the tenor of a character piece than of a typically upbeat jig.

The bells is one of Byrd’s most impressive feats of imagination. The whole piece is built, remarkably, on a ground of only two notes, C and D, and paints a vivid portrait of church bell-ringing, interspersed with a dance-like tune which one could imagine being played on a fiddle outside the church. The bells become ever grander and more exciting as the piece progresses. At the end of the sixteenth century, a new form of bell-ringing called ‘changes’ was developing in England—a system of precisely varied patterns which could last for hours in its longest forms. I wonder whether Byrd may have heard the first seeds of the new practice when he was cathedral organist in Lincoln. Although by the time Byrd composed this wonderful piece bell-ringing had become a secular occupation as it remains today, by its very nature it is inseparable from the Church and carries on a tradition whose origins lie in ancient monastic practices. Perhaps this is another feature of the legacy of the Reformation.

In many ways the Walsingham shrine in Norfolk is emblematic of the story of Christianity in England. It was first built in 1061 following a vision by an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman called Richeldis de Faverches, in which the Virgin Mary appeared and instructed her to build a replica of the Holy House in Nazareth. The shrine became a major site of pilgrimage in Northern Europe until it was largely destroyed in the Reformation, but the remaining ruins, as well as the reconstructed shrine and chapel, remain important today for both Anglicans and Catholics. The ruins seem to me to be a powerful, paradoxical symbol of the destruction and preservation which characterize so much of this period of history.

As I went to Walsingham,
To the shrine with speed,
Met I with a jolly palmer
In a pilgrim’s weed.

Byrd and Bull both wrote variations on this well-known but anonymous ballad of Walsingham, a poem which exists in various iterations—in Hamlet, Ophelia sings a version in which a woman asks about her pilgrim lover: ‘How should I your true love know? … He is dead and gone, lady, / He is dead and gone. / At his head a grass-green turf, / At his heels a stone.’ Written as a response to Byrd’s, Bull’s Walsingham, my choice for this recording, is significantly longer—by eight variations. It was probably Francis Tregian the Younger who chose it to open the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a monumental and groundbreaking collection of Elizabethan and early Jacobean keyboard music. Bull’s piece is far more audacious and, I feel, more optimistic than Byrd’s, which is an essentially sorrowful and introverted work that I like to imagine could be Byrd’s personal lament for the destruction of the shrine. Perhaps Bull’s composition, in its overt virtuosity and extrovert character, reflects his own far less devout attitude to religion. It opens with a simple chorale, becoming more polyphonic in the first five variations, before faster notes are introduced as the piece develops and it showcases ever more dazzling keyboard techniques: trills, repeated notes, scurrying scales and arpeggios. Finally, the last variation returns to the reflective and prayerful atmosphere of the opening.

Sweelinck’s hexachord fantasia Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la is a shining example of the beauty of this type of Renaissance counterpoint. Until well into the sixteenth century, music notation was taught via a system of solmization, in which overlapping sequences of six notes (ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la) make up the ‘gamut’, the full range of tones. Sweelinck uses two hexachords as the underpinning themes of the whole piece: the ‘natural’ hexachord, outlining a six-note scale from C to A; and the ‘soft’ hexachord, from F to D. Against these almost hypnotic rising and falling sequences, which periodically double and halve in speed throughout the piece, he lays five different countersubjects, creating a texture which is simultaneously dense and yet transparent. At the end we return to the purity of the hexachords, which appear in all the voices.

Gibbons’s Pavan and Galliard ‘Lord Salisbury’ make a mournful coupling. Gibbons, like Byrd, quotes John Dowland’s Lachrymae/Flow, my tears in both pieces. In particular the pavan, despite its form, has more of the feeling of a tombeau than a dance. The galliard is slightly more positive, but the disparity of proportions between its three sections (the first strain is significantly shorter than the second and third) creates for me, especially in the final section, a plaintive and intimate mood which negates the livelier associations of the dance.

By contrast, La Volta (‘the turning’), is an exuberant and risqué type of galliard, in which a man would lift his partner with his left hand on her far hip and his right hand at the bottom of her corset. This spirited dance was enjoyed at Elizabeth I’s court, although the rumour that she danced it with her favourite statesman Lord Dudley is unfortunately unlikely to be true.

The final piece on this album, Bull’s goodnight, is a set of variations which expresses much of the charm and naturalness which I feel to be characteristic of Bull’s style; in the later variations he allows the gentle melody to drop in and out of the texture, almost as if one were slowly falling asleep.

Research has provided us with many details about people’s lives in this era and yet our imagination is compelled to fill in so many gaps. Musically speaking, exploring this repertoire on the piano gives me a sense of encountering a palace of riches, and at the same time a feeling of venturing into relatively uncharted territory. I would love it if works from this period were to become fully integrated into the modern pianist’s canon and for this inspiring repertoire to enter into a dialogue with masterpieces from throughout history.

Mishka Rushdie Momen © 2024

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