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William BYRD (1540 - 1623): "Pescodd Time"

Bertrand Cuiller, harpsichorda, virginalsb

rec: Feb 2005, Paris, l'Hôpital Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours (chapel)
Alpha - 319 (R) (© 2016) (58'58")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

John BULL (1562-1628): In nomine (MB 9)a; The King's Hunt (MB 125)a; William BYRD: Fantasia (MB 46)b; The Queen's Alman (MB 10)b; Pavan (MB 16a)b; Galliard (MB 16b)b; 3 French Corantos (MB 21)b; Ground (MB 9)b; Pescodd Time - The Hunt's Up (MB 40)b; Lady Monteagle's Pavan (MB 75)a; Fantasia (MB 62)a; Pavan (MB 23a)b; Peter PHILIPS (1560-1628): Pavana dolorosaa; Galiarda dolorosaa

One of the main sources of European keyboard music is the art of the English virginalists, composers of keyboard music from the decades around 1600. The common name derives from the instrument, which was so characteristic of keyboard playing in England: the virginals. It was widely disseminated, partly because it was cheaper than the harpsichord. Samuel Pepys, in his diary, mentions that during the Great Fire of London in 1661, when people were trying to rescue their furniture by boat, there was a virginal in almost one in three of them.

One of the main exponents of virginal music is William Byrd. He was one of the most revered composers of his time, despite the fact that he was of the Catholic religion, in a time when England was under the rule of the firmly protestant Elizabeth I. Byrd contributed to almost any genre of his time: sacred and secular vocal music, consort music and music for keyboard. The only exception was music for the lute.

42 of Byrd's keyboard works are included in My Ladye Nevells Booke, which is preserved in manuscript in the British Library. Another important source of his keyboard oeuvre is the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Byrd was also one of the three contributors to the collection Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls, printed at the occasion of the wedding of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick V, Count Palatinate of the Rhine, which was to take place in February 1613. It was, as the title says, the first printed collection of English keyboard music in history. As Byrd was considered one of the three great keyboard virtuosos of his time the inclusion of compositions from his pen in Parthenia is obvious. The other two virtuosos were John Bull and Orlando Gibbons. The former is also included in the programme of the present disc.

All genres are represented in Byrd's keyboard oeuvre: dances, variations on popular tunes, grounds, character pieces, fantasias, preludes and, of course, pairs of pavans and galliards. The latter figure prominently in English instrumental music of the late renaissance, and these forms are especially well represented in Parthenia. The present disc includes specimens of most genres, and from that perspective it is an excellent introduction to the keyboard oeuvre of Byrd.

In Byrd's keyboard oeuvre the fantasias take a special place. According to Thomas Morley, in his A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597), "[the] most principall and chiefest kind of musicke which is made without a dittie [text] is the fantasie, that is, when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure, and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shall seeme best in his own conceit. In this may more art be showne then in any other musicke, because the composer is tide to nothing but that he may adde, deminish, and alter at his pleasure." In short: the composer starts with nothing except an idea of his own invention, and he can do with it whatever he likes. Byrd's fantasias are among his masterpieces. In fact, he played a crucial role in its development as he was the first to write large-scale fantasias for keyboard and created a specific idiom, which was different from music for other instruments or for consort. The fantasias are also some of his most virtuosic works, and in the Fantasia (MB 46), which opens this disc, the brilliance increases as the piece progresses.

The Queen's Alman is a piece which demonstrates Byrd's art of variation. Its melody was internationally known, in Italy as La Monica, in France as Une jeune fillette and in Germany with the sacred text Von Gott will ich nicht lassen. Only one pair of pavan and galliard is included; it is thought to be an early work. The programme closes with a pavan which was originally also part of a pair; for reasons which are not explained in the booklet, the galliard has been omitted. It is notable that it is in the key of B flat, which was very unusual at the time. The Ground is a specimen of a genre which was popular across Europe and would be come even more popular during the 17th century: pieces based on a repeated bass pattern, so-called bassi ostinati.

The Hunt's Up is also based on a ground, and the bass is derived from the popular song Pescodd Time - "the pea-gathering season", in modern English. The latter is the title of this piece in one of the versions in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. The song to which the title The Hunt's Up refers, is about "Harry our King" going hunting. It is a sequence of eleven variations, and as one may expect this piece stands out for the way the various rhythms are treated.

Although this disc's star is William Byrd, two other composers are also represented. One of them is John Bull, the second of the 'big three' of English keyboard music around 1600. In 1613 he fled England; he suggested that he had done so for religious reasons, but in fact he wanted to escape prosecution. Throughout his career he had been in conflict with the authorities for various forms of misbehaviour, among them adultery. In 1597 he was elected the first Public Reader in music at Gresham College, London. He held this post - with a one year break - until 1607 when he was sacked because of an extramarital affair. Like Byrd's The Hunt's Up, Bull's The King's Hunt refers to a royal hunting party, but here we have not a series of variations on a song, but a real character piece, which includes depictions of the sounds associated with hunting, such as horn calls. There is an increasing sense of excitement, also due to a speeding up of the tempo. In a programme of English keyboard music of the renaissance an In nomine can hardly be omitted. Numerous pieces for keyboard and for a consort of instruments on this subject were written. Whereas the first half is quiet and close to the sacred origin of the subject, the second half is very lively.

Peter Philips was one of Byrd's pupils. He was also Catholic, and like Bull he left the country, but in his case there can be no doubt that he did so for religious reasons. He worked on the continent, mainly in the Southern Netherlands, which were under Spanish rule and therefore Catholic. Another specific feature of Philips is his acquaintance with Italian music - for instance Palestrina, Anerio and Marenzio - which is reflected in his vocal oeuvre. One of his best-known keyboard works is connected to an event in his life. In 1593 he visited Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck in Amsterdam, and on his way back to Antwerp he was arrested and imprisoned in The Hague. This event inspired him to compose the Pavana & Galliarda Dolorosa which is remarkable for its harmonic progressions. Its sad character is confined to the pavan; the two pieces are connected through the re-use of thematic material of the pavan in the galliard.

This disc was Bertrand Cuiller's debut; unfortunately it never crossed my path. In the booklet he expresses his happiness that it is available again, and I second that. It is a very fine disc, which offers an outstanding introduction to the world of the English virginalists. It is also nice that the plays two different instruments. The harpsichord is a double transposing instrument, meaning that the lower manual is one fourth below the upper manual. This results in different sound characteristics, which are effectively explored here. Add to that the excellent playing and a good sense of rhythm, which is essential in this repertoire, and one understands that a strongly recommend this disc to any lover of early keyboard music.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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