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8.572433 - BYRD, W.: Fantasias for Harpsichord (Complete) (G. Wilson)

William Byrd (1539/40–1623)
Complete Fantasias for Harpsichord


It seems rather astounding that nothing—not even the year or place of his birth—is known with any degree of certainty about the life of England’s greatest composer until his appointment as organist at Lincoln cathedral at the age of 22; but the losses from the meagre public records that were kept in that distant age have been massive. Most of the information we have comes from dispiriting court papers involving property rows. The best available evidence has him born in London in 1539 or 1540. There is one fairly clear reference to his having been a student of Thomas Tallis, which would put him in the orbit of the Chapel Royal. His later connections to Tallis were, in any case, the most important of Byrd’s professional life. Two of his brothers were choirboys at St Paul’s. The source of such musicality in the family may have been their father’s and grandfather’s membership in the Company of Fletchers, some of whom had turned to making instruments as the demand for arrows decreased with the rise of firearms. A brother-in-law and protégé of Byrd’s is known to have been just such a one, and the highly advanced harpsichord by Theeuwes is now known to have belonged to the Catholic Roper family, who were Byrd’s landlords for many years. I sense a connection with the composer who was the first to lift the harpsichord to the highest reaches of musical expression.

Byrd left Lincoln in 1572 to become a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal—a confirmed Roman Catholic in the service of a melomane Protestant, Elizabeth I. Thus began a long balancing act for both servant and sovereign; severe penalties were prescribed for persistent non-conformists to the Anglican church, but the Queen held her protecting hand over a man too valuable to lose. Byrd, for his part, joined in church services which, to his mind, were purest heresy. He is known to have been close to people involved in plots on his Queen’s life, but that was hardly to be avoided in the small, secretive Catholic circles of the day.

After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, he withdrew into semi-retirement, and devoted himself to farming, his family, and the composition and printing (without a colophon, but with his own name on every page) of openly Catholic music. He continued to be harassed by the authorities to the end. Byrd died on his Essex estate, a gift from Elizabeth, in 1623. The place of his burial is unknown (it could not be in consecrated ground or even registered with the local Anglican parish); but in his will he asked to be laid beside his wife.

When Philip II of Spain married Queen Mary in 1554, he brought his musicians with him to England, among them the greatest master of the keyboard of his age, Antonio Cabezón. They participated in several documented events with the Chapel Royal; the contacts must have been intense over the eighteen-month stay. Cabezón was one of the first to employ the thoroughly balanced four-part texture in keyboard music which had barely been seen in England before then, and which suddenly appears there, fully-fledged, with Byrd.

The source of Byrd’s elaborate Italianate figuration is a mystery; something of this had suddenly exploded in England a generation earlier with Hugh Aston, whom Byrd probably knew. It may have been imported by Dionisio Memmo, organist of San Marco and a favourite of Henry VIII. Or perhaps Byrd spent some time in Italy and did not care to advertise the fact. (He sent his son to study in Spain.) The source of Byrd’s formidable mastery of counterpoint is no mystery at all. Tallis was his model, and later his partner in a monopoly of music printing granted the two men by Elizabeth I, which turned out to be more of a headache for Byrd than he may have bargained for; but it gave him a superb platform for transmitting his corpus of matchless vocal works to the world and to posterity.

The fantasias for harpsichord stand on the same pinnacle. The form was just being adapted for keyboard in Byrd’s youth, from lute and consort music, but with him it becomes the supreme showpiece of the keyboardist’s art. Opening fugal passages give way to increasingly lively homophonic, dance-like sections, and these finally yield to idiomatic displays of virtuosity that were lacking in earlier models. They often end with joyful canons in triple time that tap into deep roots leading back to the earliest known piece of English secular music, the thirteenth-century Sumer is icumen in.

In one case, [3] Byrd offers a Praeludium to the Fancie. From this, and other examples in the literature, one can infer that a prelude, improvised or pre-composed, was expected before embarking on such a big work, as a means of familiarizing the performer with the instrument and concentrating the audience’s attention. I have placed two preludes firmly ascribed to Byrd ([5], [14]) before fantasias of the same key. British musicologists have put forward two anonymous preludes as candidates for the Byrd canon, one of which [12] has found a place here. Our first track is a thing of such magnificence that I like to think only Byrd could have written it—but it could also be by his most gifted pupil, John Bull, who is in all likelihood the composer of the anonymous Doric Music [10], added to an autograph book of Bull’s keyboard music by its later owner, the excellent Benjamin Cosyn. It is included here because it catches the solemn mood of the great D minor fantasia [11], with its opening themes from the Marian antiphon Salve Regina—and because it is the most starkly dissonant of all English preludes.

There is no secure dating possible for the fantasias. Those which were included in My Ladye Nevells Book ([6], [8], [11]), and the early version of the C major consort arrangement [16] as “a lesson of voluntary”) were composed before it was assembled in 1591. The two G major fantasias ([2], [15]) are probably the earliest. Certain technical imperfections have been noted in them, but I would trade these two pieces, bubbling over with invention and vitality, for twenty technically perfect motets by Palestrina. About a mature masterpiece such as [4], little can be said, except thanks be to Providence that it has survived the centuries.

The “hexachord fantasias” are a special category. Here, the six-note scale of medieval music theory is used as a cantus firmus, running up and down in long notes throughout the piece. The first of these [8] has the unusual number of seventeen statements of this theme, and is therefore thought to have been a gift to Elizabeth celebrating the seventeenth year of her reign. If so, the compliment may have been barbed. The most striking sections of the piece correspond to the years 1565 (trumpets, and an appearance of a Flemish song praising the beauty of a brown-haired girl), 1566 (a brilliant theme entry in D major with doubled third, followed by a long catabasis), and 1567 (catastrophe, including the “unusable” note of A flat). These were the years of the marriage, the birth of the son (the later James I of England), and the murder of the husband of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, the hope of all English Catholics for a second restoration of the old religion.

In a late source, the Fitzwilliam Virginal book (whose readings I have preferred throughout, while discounting the “good enough for government work” errors rife in this product of the royal copying studio), this splendid work has a postlude called Ut, mi, re [9]—the beginning notes of a zigzag version of the hexachord which is its all-pervading theme. The five-voice opening is of unparallelled contrapuntal density, the zig-zags fitted together like an intricate clockwork in every conceivable configuration, a procedure found in Frescobaldi’s Fantasias, which the Ferrarese showed to “the most prominent musicians” in Brussels in 1607. These would have included Byrd’s former pupil Peter Philips, one of many English Catholics who fled to the Spanish Netherlands. The theme then appears in long notes, sometimes in two strands at once, against counterpoints that seem a throwback to an earlier generation. For that reason, most authorities consider this a youthful effort, but there is mastery here that goes far beyond Byrd’s early cantus firmus exercises in the style of Tallis and Blitheman. The notation in quarter-note (crotchet) beats, the division into clearly separated variations, and the unique late source all point to this being the last of the fantasias—Byrd, perhaps on a winter’s night at Stondon Place, indulging in nostalgia for the improvisational ecstasies of times past.

The other hexachord piece [13] is the most modest and playful of the set. The theme in long single notes is to be played from beginning to end in the treble by a beginner, whereas the piece itself, which begins with bells ringing and ends with prolonged coaxing, requires an able performer. Towards the end two songs are quoted. “As I walked the woods so wild” has all the earmarks of a pastoral, but its last line is “For of love I die with woe”; and “The shaking of the sheets” is a frank dance of death. Taken all together, this looks like the old lover’s trope about gathering rosebuds while ye may. Opportunities for sitting so close together, with hands touching occasionally, were rare at the time. Could this have been a courting piece for Julian Birley Byrd?

The five-part Fantasia in C [16] is one of the supreme contrapuntal splendours of all time. The two upper parts are in canon at the interval of a fourth throughout, but Byrd so skilfully embeds them in the other three that the artifice remains inaudible until gradually revealed towards the middle of the piece as the level of excitement of the successive themes increases. Here again a song is quoted: “Sick, sick, in grave I wish I were, For grief to see this wicked world, that will not mend I fear.” This seems strange in a piece that begins with consolation and ends in triumph. It is heard here in the late version as transcribed by the last of the great virginalists, Thomas Tomkins, from the string consort, which has a completely different ending from Byrd’s arrangement in Nevell. The noble final theme—the same as that of the finest fugue in The Well-Tempered Clavier—appears in doubled note values, wrought in Byrd’s most mature style. Here is what I think: this is Byrd’s memorial for Mary, Queen of Scots, and the augmentation at the end is the prolongation of her line with her son James I, the ancestor of all subsequent British monarchs.

Byrd addressed a plea for careful execution of his works to “all true lovers of Musicke”, which closes thus: “As I have done my best endeavor to give you content, so I beseech you satisfie my desire in hearing them well expressed: and then I doubt not, for Art and Ayre both of skillful and ignorant they will deserve liking. Vale. Thine W. Byrd.

In closing I will join with Byrd’s copyist John Baldwin:

With fingers and with penne:
he hathe not now his peere:
For in this world so wide:
is none can him come neere:
the rarest man hee is:
in musicks worthy art:
that now on earthe doth live:
I speake it from my harte:
or heere to fore hathe been:
or after him shall come:
none such I fear shall rise:
that may be calde his sonne:…
fare well I saie fare well:
fare well and heere I end:
fare well, melodious birde:
fare well sweete musicks frende.

Glen Wilson

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