|About this Recording
8.550604 - BYRD: Consort and Keyboard Music / Songs and Anthems
William Byrd (1543 - 1623)
William Byrd is one of that select body of composers who was recognised as a genius, and an influential one, during his own lifetime. His contemporaries referred to him as 'a Father of Musick' and 'our Phoenix', perhaps alluding to his rôle in bringing Elizabethan music to a peak of perfection, particularly in terms of his understanding of the way continental polyphony could be used for effective expressive ends. Having learned through the influence of his older colleague Thomas Tallis, and the example of foreigners such as Alfonso Ferrabosco, whose music was much copied and eventually published in England, Byrd developed his distinctive musical language into one capable of infinite variety of mood and character.
The outline of Byrd's early career is not well documented, but he must have been born in 1543, possibly in London where he may have been taught by Tallis. At the age of nineteen he was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, but it was not long before he was sworn in as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, taking up residence in London in 1572, and sharing the duties of organist with Tallis. It was soon after this that the two composers received a monopoly from Queen Elizabeth for the publishing and printing of music. Byrd was now at the hub of English musical life, composing services and anthems for the reformed English liturgy, songs with viols for court entertainments, as well as keyboard music which bears witness to his own prowess as a virtuoso performer, and publishing songs for the growing amateur market.
During the 1580s and 1590s, however, life for Catholics in England was becoming increasingly hard, and like many of the old faith Byrd tended to withdraw from court life, buying a property in Stondon Massey in Essex, and spending more time with noble Catholic families. He clearly cultivated influential friends, and was spared the worst excesses of persecution, but it was for secret Latin services in the great houses of such families as the Petres of Ingatestone Hall that Byrd wrote his three great Mass settings and the late Latin motets. By now, however, his instrumental works and secular songs were also being avidly received by the rapidly flourishing demand for domestic music.
By 1600 the viols, hitherto largely the domain of professional instrumentalists at court, were being cultivated by wealthy amateurs, and Byrd's fantasias, In Nomines and dances were circulated widely. Indeed he included two fantasias, in four  and six  parts in his 1611 publication Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets, alongside secular songs and those with sacred texts, such as Have mercy upon me  with its alternation of a solo voice with viols and chorus sections with text in all parts. Byrd's interest in music publishing continued with Parthenia, an important collection of keyboard pieces in 1613, and he then spent his last decade in semi-retirement in Essex, dying in 1623 in his eightieth year.
The music recorded here gives a representative cross-section of Byrd's secular output and gives an idea of its variety .The Consort songs (for solo voice with Viols) are mostly serious in outlook -Byrd was described by Henry Peacham in 1622 as 'naturally disposed to Gravitie and Pietie'. The genre probably has its origins in music for Court dramatic entertainments produced by the Choirboys of St. Paul's, Westminster Abbey, and the Chapel Royal. It was also used, particularly for elegies and laments, in the burgeoning Elizabethan public theatre.
Several of Byrd's Consort songs can be associated with specific events at Court: Rejoice unto the Lord  celebrates the twenty-eighth anniversary of Elizabeth's accession to the English throne in 1586. Two others mark more sombre events: In angel's weed  is an elegy for Mary, Queen of Scots, Who died in 1587, while Fair Britain isle  laments in especially heartfelt manner the passing of Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, in 1612. Byrd's sense of drama Comes to the fore in Triumph with pleasant melody , a dialogue between Christ and a Sinner. Although it would be possible to perform it with one voice taking both rôles, we have here taken the liberty of a more realistic approach. Susanna fair  was published in Byrd's first secular collection, Psalmes, Sonets and Songs, of 1588 with text in all five voices, but it is performed here in its original format as a solo consort song.
The final item included, Christ rising again  from his 1589 collection of Songs of Sundrie Natures, Shows Byrd's complete mastery of the verse anthem form which he was largely responsible for bringing to fruition. It is a development from the consort song, but here Short choruses are interjected into the texture, breaking up the solos into a number of 'verses'. Later to be adopted by the church with organ accompaniment, the verse anthem in domestic devotions would have used Viols instead, the instruments weaving a delicately energetic backdrop to the passionate declamations of the solo voices.
Byrd's consort music, like that of all his English contemporaries, utilises the forms of the fantasia, which his pupil Thomas Morley described as 'the most principal and chiefest kind of music which is made without a dittie', and the dance forms of the stately pavan and the more vigorous galliard. Byrd's fantasias have a habit of beginning like textless vocal polyphony, with spacious entries of the individual voices, though in the four part fantasia  two themes are heard from the outset. As the pieces develop, however, they become infected by more clearly 'popular' material, with references to Greensleeves  and the inclusion within the fantasia of clearly defined galliard sections , .
The In Nomine was a uniquely English phenomenon: a fantasia based on a cantus firmus which used the plainsong Gloria tibi Trinitas. A section of the Benedictus of the Mass of that name by Johann Taverner, was taken out of context as an instrumental piece, then imitated by most great English composers down to Henry Purcell. Byrd's four-part setting  is an early work, its lean counterpoint clearly related to the works of his older contemporaries Parsons and White, but the fifth five-part version  is altogether more complex. Here Byrd begins with gently falling phrases, only gradually to enliven his ideas, concluding with triumphant fanfare-like rising arpeggio patterns. Unlike the >In Nomines, the six part pavan and galliard , are thought to be relatively late works, possibly Byrd's last for viol consort, but there is no sign of decline in either vitality or invention in these superbly wrought examples of 'art' dance music.
Like many of his contemporaries, Byrd was a renowned keyboard player, and he left a large number of works designed for harpsichord, or for the usually single-strung, rectangular virginals with their rather more plummy tone-colour. John come kiss me now  from the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is a brilliant example of Byrd's variation technique: the tune on which it is based is always there somewhere, moving from part to part, disguised in a decorative flurry of ever more exciting figuration. Both the majestic Pavan and the lively Oui passe  come from My Lady Nevell's Book of 1592, a manuscript collection which Byrd seems to have supervised himself. While the former is a highly sophisticated and restrained piece of writing, the latter reflects its origins in an Italian popular song, since despite its contrapuntal ingenuity it never loses sight of the earthy rhythmic verve of its Venetian model.
1994 John Bryan
Rose Consort of Viols
The Rose Consort of Viols takes its name from the celebrated family of viol makers, whose work spanned the growth and flowering of the English consort repertoire. With its unique blend of intimacy, intricacy, passion and flamboyance, this repertoire forms the basis of the Rose Consort's programmes ranging from Taverner and Byrd, to Lawes, Locke and Purcell, and expanding where necessary to include singers, lutes and keyboard instruments.
The Consort performs extensively throughout Britain and the continent of Europe, appears regularly on the BBC and in the major London concert halls, and has made a number of highly acclaimed recordings. It has received awards for its research and performance of newly devised programmes, some of which have been toured on the Early Music Network, or performed at leading festivals such as York, Utrecht and Bruges.
Red Byrd was founded by John Potter and Richard Wistreich to break new ground in singing both early and contemporary music. They have performed at major festivals in Bremen, Bruges and Utrecht, made a number of significant recordings and commissioned several new works for voices and 'old' instruments.
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