musica Dei donum

CD reviews

William BYRD (1543 - 1623): "The Melodious Birde"

Colin Booth, virginalsa, harpsichordb

rec: Jan 2017, Westbury sub Mendip (UK)
Soundboard Records - SBCD217 ( [2020]) (75'50")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & tracklist

A Voluntarie for my ladye nevell [MLN 26]b; Fantasia [MB XXVII,13]b; Fantasia [MB XXVII,25]b; Ground [MB XXVII,9]b; Ground [MB XXVII,43]b; Jhon Come Kisse Me Now [FWV 10]a; Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home [MB XXVII,7]a; Pavana & Galiarda [FVB 254/255]a; Pavana Ph. Tr. & Galiarda [FVB 93/94]b; Prelude [MB XXVII,12]b; The Carman's Whistle [MB XXVII,36]b; The Queen's Alman [MB XXVII,10]a; Third Pavan & Third Galliard [MLN 14/15]b; Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la [FVB 101]b
FVB: Fitzwilliam Virginal Book; MB: Musica Britannica; MLN: My Lady Nevell's Book

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. However, this does not mean that all keyboard music was intended to be played on the virginal. As New Grove writes, the term 'virginal' was used in England "to denote all quilled keyboard instruments well into the 17th century". That is not all. There was a long tradition of secular organ playing in England, which went back at least to Tudor times. Therefore some pieces can also be played at small organs.

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. 42 of his 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 took place in February 1613.

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. Colin Booth presents here a cross-section of Byrd's output. He was organist of the Chapel Royal, but only a few pieces in his oeuvre are specifically intended for the organ. From this, Booth concludes in his liner-notes that "he was probably an improviser of great ability". The fantasias included here may well give us some idea of his skills in this department. These very likely had their origin in improvisation, and they show Byrd's command of counterpoint in a most impressive way. The two monumental fantasias in the programme receive masterful performances.

Dances take a very important place in English renaissance music, whether written for single instruments, such as the keyboard and the lute, or for a consort of instruments. The pair of pavan and galliard was especially popular, and numerous of such pieces have been preserved in all sorts of scorings. Two pairs are included here. In these pieces Booth shows his excellent sense of rhythm, which is essential in these dances, more than in a rather rustic alman, such as The Queen's Alman, specifically dedicated to Elizabeth I.

Variations on popular tunes and songs constitute a third important genre of English music, again written for different instruments or ensembles. In one of the main sources of keyboard music, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, one finds numerous such pieces by a whole variety of composers. Byrd is one of them: Jhon come kisse me now was a very popular tune, that was the subject of variations as late as the mid-17th century, when the violinist Thomas Baltzar wrote his variations on it.

In the same book we find Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, known as the hexachord, which was a popular subject of keyboard pieces. John Bull, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Girolamo Frescobaldi are just three composers who used it. A disc with music by an English composer of the Renaissance is not complete with at least one ground. New Grove defines it thus: "A melody, usually in the bass and hence often called a ground bass (basso ostinato in Italian), recurring many times in succession, accompanied by continuous variation in the upper parts." Such pieces were written all over Europe, and could be either instrumental or vocal. Two splendid examples are included here; the interested reader may want to hear a disc by Colin Booth devoted to this genre (Grounds for Pleasure).

The disc ends with a voluntary, which is not a specific genre, but rather the title given by composers to in particular organ pieces of various kinds. Here it is a kind of fantasia, a tribute to Lady Nevell, Elizabeth Bacon, wife of Sir Henry Neville of Billingbear House, and the dedicatee of My Lady Nevells Book.

Today Byrd may be mainly known as the composer of sacred music, in particular masses and motets. However, he was much more, as he contributed to virtually any genre in vogue in his time. He can be considered the first 'true' keyboard composer, as previously keyboard music was mostly derived from vocal models. Moreover, he was considered one of the great virtuosos of his time. That comes to the fore here, as well as his great versatility. If one wants to become acquainted with Byrd's keyboard music, purchasing this disc is the ideal way to do so. Byrd's keyboard works are available complete in a recording by Davitt Moroney (Hyperion), but not everyone wants to have each tiny little piece by Byrd. Moreover, in the matter of tuning, Colin Booth has taken a different approach from Moroney. He plays three fine instruments, one virginal - too often neglected in this kind of repertoire - and two different harpsichords. Their different features lend this disc further variety.

In short, this is a splendid disc which is the ideal combination of music, instruments and performer.

Johan van Veen ( 2021)

Relevant links:

Colin Booth

CD Reviews