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A bird I have that sings so well,
None like to her their tunes can raise;
All other birds she doth excel,
And of birds all best worthy praise.
Now this my bird of endless fame,
Whose music sweet, whose pleasant sound,
Whose worthy praise, whose worthy name,
Doth from the earth to heaven rebound.
THIS anonymous contemporary song text reflects the love and reverence for William Byrd felt by his peers and by those whom he served so well. His genius won for him a unique place in the musical world of Tudor England. From 1569 on, he held the honored and powerful position of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Moreover, in this time of religious turbulence, Byrd, a seemingly sedate man and a great favorite of the Queen, was one of the Catholics never seriously threatened. To our knowledge he had never been involved in a plot against Elizabeth, her Church or her government. She called him "a stiff Papist and a good subject." She had audible proof of his absolute dedication to his art above all else, for his musical activities were in all forms, and transcended religious boundaries: either because of a personal philosophy, or because, astutely, he wrote for both the Catholic Church and the prevailing Anglican Church. He himself considered this corpus of sacred music, and the choral music as a whole, his greatest work. However, the keyboard music, which includes many gems, blazed trails for his contemporaries and all who followed in the centuries to come. The Fitzmilliam Virginal Book and the Nevill commonplace book, My Ladye Nevells Booke, are our two chief sources for this music.
Music printing was slow getting started in England; in fact, England was fifty years behind the Continent in this respect. The few books which had been printed were pro-hibitively expensive. Players had for a long time been accustomed to copying out what pleased them, creating personal and family "commonplace books." Several of the manuscript virginal books which have come to light were commonplace books; many other such collections must have disappeared in the almost 400 years' span of time.
In 1591, when the Nevill commonplace book was presented to the Lady Nevill then living, instrumental music had already developed to a remarkable degree, but vocal music was at its height, artistically and as a popular pastime. Perhaps for this reason alone, immediately after the English victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, with the country in a mood of glorious jubilation, the people more affluent and the political climate somewhat more relaxed, Byrd had gathered together the accumulation of some years' work and published his Psalmes, Sonets and songs of Sadnes and pietie. In 1589 he published the Songs of sundrie natures and the first book of his Cantiones sacrae. During these years he was living in Harlington, between Eridge Castle in Sussex, the seat of the Nevill family, whom he knew and may have served as music instructor, and Windsor, the home of his friend John Baldwin, the most famous musical scribe of the time. Probably Byrd corrected the manuscript many times while the volume, obviously commissioned by some member of the Nevill family, was being compiled.
Why did Byrd not publish these pieces too? For one thing, we know that he himself most prized his sacred choral and vocal music, especially when it was inspired by "the life of the words." Then, perhaps his integrity did not permit him to do for himself what he could not with impunity do for his suspect friends, colleagues and co-religionists. Perhaps, also, the demand for keyboard music did not yet justify the great expense involved. And perhaps, as Edmund Fellowes has suggested in his definitive biography of Byrd, the physical problems of printing the ornate keyboard variations had not yet been solved. This seems questionable, for as early as 1599 Byrd's successor in the printing monopoly, Thomas Morley, brought out his First Booke of Consort Lessons with a printed lute part. We know now that the elaborate writing for the lute, direct antecedent and greatest influence upon the keyboard literature, was in its own way a printing problem. Since this 1599 lute part book is still lost we cannot compare Morley's solution with the first printed book of virginal music, Parthenia, devoted to pieces by William Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons, which did not appear until 1611 or 1612. Significantly, by that time the Catholic James I was on the throne, the political picture had changed and it was safer for the three colleagues to be openly associated in one publication. Back in 1599 Morley, too, may have been protecting some of the recusant composers whose music was included in his collection by leaving them anonymous, a fact for which he was criticized in 1614 by Rosseter in the latter's similar volume, and is still criticized now.
In 1968 the identity of "Lady Nevill" remains as mysterious as it was in 1926 when the first edition of the present volume appeared. In 1936 Edmund Fellowes, too, admitted the impossibility of a specific identification. The genealogical lines and interrelationships of this old and distinguished Catholic family, which for centuries has supplied England with loyal servants on many levels, even to its highest administrators, are most complex. That the scribe John Baldwin signed and dated the completed manuscript in 1591 does not necessarily mean that the pieces included were commissioned or even written between 1588 and 1591 for the spirited, educated Lady Rachel, wife of the younger Sir Edward Nevill, Earl of Abergavenny and Member of Parliament from Windsor from 1588 to 1589. Like Byrd's 1588 Psalmes ... and several of the elaborate broken consort settings that Morley compiled, some dating back to about 1575, these compositions may represent the accumulation of ten to fifteen years' work. Lady Rachel probably inherited the volume, and treasuring it as a family heirloom—the manuscript is still in the hands of the present Abergavennys—would not change the monogram H. N. The latter, now in the lower left-hand corner of the title page and said to be not so old as the manuscript, may have been put there when the original binding, which customarily bore the owner's initials, had deteriorated and the volume was rebound. It seems more likely that the commonplace book was first commissioned by one of the three Henry Nevills, in particular the sixth Earl, whose wife Frances, also lively and literary, was mentioned in Horace Walpole's A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England (1758). She died in 1576.
As should be expected, the character and musical tastes of both ladies, and perhaps of the whole family, seem to be reflected in the choice of pieces. Apart from the obviously programmed suite The Battell (supposedly written after the Armada victory), most of the themes are somber, academically treated at length. Of contemporary dances only the stately Munsers Almaine (Monsieurs Almaine) and the ten grave pavans with their rather subdued galliards are to be found, along with variations on only a few of the oldest traditional and country dance-tunes. Byrd elsewhere set many that were more varied in character. The scope of the volume, due to the omission of the delightful corantos and voltas so popular at court, is somewhat restricted. Were the Ladies Nevill, as members of an "attainted" family, not welcomed at court? Did they dislike the less restrained Italian dances? Or did Byrd write these livelier pieces at a later time? They are included in the Fitzwilliam collection along with many other settings by Byrd of sacred and secular songs and popular tunes. At any rate, in view of the acute appreciation by Hilda Andrews of the character, variety, quality and importance of the virginal school as a whole, it is difficult to understand why she dismisses Byrd's contribution to the Fitzwilliam collection as unrepresentative, at the same time proclaiming the "splendid vitality of his inventive faculty, never surpassed and rarely equalled by any of his contemporaries"; or why in looking back to the beginnings of keyboard style and Hugh Aston's delightful Horne pype (c. 1500?) she should have missed the humor, the daring, and found it only "crude" and "tedious." It is true that today, with the old lacuna between Aston and Byrd almost filled by newly discovered manuscripts, we have a better perspective.
The development of Byrd's keyboard style can be clearly traced to maturity in My Ladye Nevells Booke. The earlier pieces are still choral-bound; the influence of lute writing appears suddenly in the Firste Pavian, to remain part of Byrd's idiom and to lend grace to all keyboard writing. Experiments of many kinds lead to a true virtuosic style, to be further developed musically and technically by John Bull, Orlando Gibbons, Giles Farnaby and Thomas Tomkins.
The Nevill manuscript is an important document, a landmark in the history of keyboard music. For the student readying himself for Bach and the eighteenth century, there is no comparable preparation. For the teacher given to starting with Bach and Scarlatti, it is a revelation, for they are the culmination. Here is the source.
Excerpted from My Ladye Nevells Booke of Virginal Music by William Byrd. Copyright © 2010 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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