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William Byrd

(1543 - 1623)

William Byrd was an English composer of the Renaissance. He wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard (the so-called Virginalist school), and consort music. He produced sacred music for use in Anglican services, although he himself became a Roman Catholic in later life and wrote Catholic sacred music as well.

Byrd obtained the prestigious post of Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 following the death of Robert Parsons. Almost from the outset Byrd is named as ‘organist’, which however was not a designated post but an occupation for any Chapel Royal member capable of filling it. This career move vastly increased Byrd’s opportunities to widen his scope as a composer and also to make contacts at Court. Queen Elizabeth (1558–1603) was a moderate Protestant who eschewed the more extreme forms of Puritanism and retained a fondness for elaborate ritual, besides being a music lover and keyboard player herself. Byrd’s output of Anglican church music (defined in the strictest sense as sacred music designed for performance in church) is surprisingly small, but it stretches the limits of elaboration then regarded as acceptable by some reforming Protestants who regarded highly wrought music as a distraction from the Word of God.

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book is a primary source of keyboard music from the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods in England, i.e., the late Renaissance and very early Baroque. It takes its name from Viscount Fitzwilliam who bequeathed this manuscript collection to Cambridge University in 1816. It is now deposited in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. Although the word virginals or virginal (the plural form does not necessarily denote more than one instrument) is used today to refer to a specific instrument similar to a small, portable harpsichord, at the time of the book the word was used to denote virtually any keyboard instrument including the organ.

It was given no title by its copyist and the ownership of the manuscript before the eighteenth century is unclear. At the time the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book was put together most collections of keyboard music were compiled by performers: other examples include Will Forster’s Virginal Book, Clement Matchett’s Virginal Book, and Anne Cromwell’s Virginal Book. Until Parthenia was printed in about 1612, there was no keyboard music published as such in England, because of the technical complexity of printing keyboard music as opposed to, for example, vocal parts.

It was once called Queen Elizabeth’s Virginal Book, a title that has been abandoned because it has been determined that she never owned it, Another hypothesis, which still has supporters, is that it belonged to Francis Tregian the Younger, a recusant and amateur musician. It has been argued that Tregian may have copied the entire collection while imprisoned in the period leading up to his death in 1618. The nature of Tregian’s contribution to the book, if any, has been disputed. Recent scholarship suggests that even if Tregian is the compiler, it is unlikely that he was imprisoned long enough to do the copying involved.

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book includes 297 separate pieces of music dating from approximately 1562 to 1612 by John Bull, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Giles Farnaby (51 of whose 52 known pieces are included), Martin Peerson, Peter Philips and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, as well as many others. As with many keyboard manuscripts of the time, the pieces were not written for a specific instrument, and most sound happily on all contemporary keyboard instruments, including virginals, harpsichord, clavichord, and chamber organ. (source: Wikipedia)

And brass…

William Byrd

Recordings of select works

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