BYRD: Consort and Keyboard Music / Songs and Anthems (Red Byrd/ Rose Consort of Viols/ Tessa Bonner/ Timothy Roberts/ Timothy Roberts) (Naxos: 8.550604)
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William Byrd (1543 - 1623)
Consort and Keyboard Music, Songs and Anthems
William Byrd is one of that select body of composers who wasrecognised as a genius, and an influential one, during his own lifetime. Hiscontemporaries referred to him as 'a Father of Musick' and 'our Phoenix', perhaps alludingto his r??le in bringing Elizabethan music to a peak of perfection, particularly in termsof his understanding of the way continental polyphony could be used for effectiveexpressive ends. Having learned through the influence of his older colleague ThomasTallis, and the example of foreigners such as Alfonso Ferrabosco, whose music was muchcopied and eventually published in England, Byrd developed his distinctive musicallanguage into one capable of infinite variety of mood and character.
The outline of Byrd's early career is not well documented, buthe must have been born in 1543, possibly in London where he may have been taught byTallis. At the age of nineteen he was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers atLincoln Cathedral, but it was not long before he was sworn in as a Gentleman of the ChapelRoyal, taking up residence in London in 1572, and sharing the duties of organist withTallis. It was soon after this that the two composers received a monopoly from QueenElizabeth for the publishing and printing of music. Byrd was now at the hub of Englishmusical life, composing services and anthems for the reformed English liturgy, songs withviols for court entertainments, as well as keyboard music which bears witness to his ownprowess as a virtuoso performer, and publishing songs for the growing amateur market.
During the 1580s and 1590s, however, life for Catholics inEngland was becoming increasingly hard, and like many of the old faith Byrd tended towithdraw from court life, buying a property in Stondon Massey in Essex, and spending moretime with noble Catholic families. He clearly cultivated influential friends, and wasspared the worst excesses of persecution, but it was for secret Latin services in thegreat houses of such families as the Petres of Ingatestone Hall that Byrd wrote his threegreat Mass settings and the late Latin motets. By now, however, his instrumental works andsecular songs were also being avidly received by the rapidly flourishing demand fordomestic music.
By 1600 the viols, hitherto largely the domain of professionalinstrumentalists at court, were being cultivated by wealthy amateurs, and Byrd'sfantasias, 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 asHave mercy upon me  with itsalternation of a solo voice with viols and chorus sections with text in all parts. Byrd'sinterest in music publishing continued with Parthenia, animportant collection of keyboard pieces in 1613, and he then spent his last decade insemi-retirement in Essex, dying in 1623 in his eightieth year.
The music recorded here gives a representative cross-section ofByrd's secular output and gives an idea of its variety .The Consort songs (for solo voicewith 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 musicfor Court dramatic entertainments produced by the Choirboys of St. Paul's, WestminsterAbbey, and the Chapel Royal. It was also used, particularly for elegies and laments, inthe burgeoning Elizabethan public theatre.
Several of Byrd's Consort songs can be associated with specificevents at Court: Rejoice unto the Lord celebrates the twenty-eighth anniversary of Elizabeth's accession to the English throne in1586. Two others mark more sombre events: In angel'sweed  is an elegy for Mary, Queen of Scots, Who died in 1587, while Fair Britain isle  laments in especially heartfelt manner the passingof Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, in 1612. Byrd's sense of drama Comes to the forein Triumph with pleasant melody , adialogue between Christ and a Sinner. Although it would be possible to perform it with onevoice taking both r??les, we have here taken the liberty of a more realistic approach. Susanna fair  was published in Byrd's firstsecular collection, Psalmes, Sonets and Songs, of1588 with text in all five voices, but it is performed here in its original format as asolo consort song.
The final item included, Christrising again  from his 1589 collection of Songs of Sundrie Natures, Shows Byrd's completemastery of the verse anthem form which he was largely responsible for bringing tofruition. It is a development from the consort song, but here Short choruses areinterjected into the texture, breaking up the solos into a number of 'verses'. Later to beadopted by the church with organ accompaniment, the verse anthem in domestic devotionswould have used Viols instead, the instruments weaving a delicately energetic backdrop tothe passionate declamations of the solo voices.
Byrd's consort music, like that of all his Englishcontemporaries, utilises the forms of the fantasia, which his pupil Thomas Morleydescribed as 'the most principal and chiefest kind of music which is made without adittie', and the dance forms of the stately pavan and the more vigorous galliard. Byrd'sfantasias have a habit of beginning like textless vocal polyphony, with spacious entriesof the individual voices, though in the four part fantasia  two themes are heard from the outset. As the pieces develop, however, theybecome infected by more clearly 'popular' material, with references to Greensleeves  andthe inclusion within the fantasia of clearly defined galliard sections , .
The In Nomine wasa uniquely English phenomenon: a fantasia based on a cantusfirmus which used the plainsong Gloria tibiTrinitas. A section of the Benedictus ofthe Mass of that name by Johann Taverner, was taken out of context as an instrumentalpiece, then imitated by most great English composers down to Henry Purcell. Byrd'sfour-part setting  is an early work, its lean counterpoint clearly related to the worksof his older contemporaries Parsons and White, but the fifth five-part version  isaltogether more complex. Here Byrd begins with gently falling phrases, only gradually toenliven his ideas, concluding with triumphant fanfare-like rising arpeggio patterns.
Unlike the >In Nomines, the six part pavan and galliard, are thought to berelatively late works, possibly Byrd's last for viol consort, but there is no sign ofdecline in either vitality or invention in these superbly wrought examples of 'art' dancemusic.
Like many of his contemporaries, Byrd was a renowned keyboardplayer, and he left a large number of works designed for harpsichord, or for the usuallysingle-strung, rectangular virginals with their rather more plummy tone-colour. John comekiss me now  from the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is a brilliant example ofByrd'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 excitingfiguration. Both the majestic Pavan and the lively Ouipasse  come from My Lady Nevell's Book of1592, a manuscript collection which Byrd seems to have supervised himself. While theformer is a highly sophisticated and restrained piece of writing, the latter re