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Fantasia a5,’Two parts in one’

William Byrd: Fantasias and In Nomines

The consort works by William Byrd (c1543-1623) for five and six viols, though not especially numerous, count as one of the wonders of the Elizabethan age, comparable to any of the greatest music produced in late 16th-century England. To sum up Byrd's musical achievement here is admittedly somewhat difficult, in part because he traffics with equal ease both in the most austere inventions possible (as in the In nomines or the Fantasia a5, in which the upper two parts form a strict canon at the upper fourth) and in the most earthy lyrics and lusty country dances (as in the Browning and in all three fantasies heard on this record). With either kind of musical approach, the key to understanding Byrd lies in listening to the subtle characterisations which he crafts, the modulations between expressive states of mind, all delineated with a stunning sense of clarity and insight.

To be able to articulate this range of human experience without reference to words, pictures, or gestures has become a musical commonplace since Romanticism, but this achievement must not be underestimated in imagining music composed in a culture in which only a few connoisseurs would have access to these unspeakable thoughts. Perhaps Byrd's staunch, even 'subversive' Roman Catholicism plays a role here. Whatever the source of this sensibility, one is astounded by the discoveries he made in the most fundamental musical realms: for Byrd goes so far beyond his forbears in their thinking about the mere treatment of dissonance based on the now venerable rules of counterpoint. Especially in his great instrumental works he demonstrates a razor - sharp understanding of the implications of harmonic progressions - the way sets of vertical sonorities link to form meaningful statements - as well as crafting a quasi-spatial notion of harmonic regions, a topic first taken up by the Netherlanders a few generations before.

Unlike even the best instrumental works in France of Byrd's day -- I am thinking of composers such as LeJeune or DuCaurroy - in which long instrumental pieces have to work hard to achieve coherence, Byrd's music always shows where one stands, what the conditions are that guarantee the outcome of each expressive act. It is perhaps for this reason that Byrd's works convey so much more than mere atmosphere or meditative contemplation: they impart rather a sense of understanding because the 'territory' traversed by his musical subjects -- whether exploring remote regions or undergoing surprising experiences corresponds so well to the joys and sorrows of ordinary life. Whilst this is not music for everyone, Byrd, after a short acquaintance, can exert a magnetic tug on even the most unsuspecting listener. For who can resist a composer who combines celestial voices with residues of the bawdy and ribald, and revels in doing so?

There are two kinds of contrapuntal pieces, broadly speaking, represented in Byrd's consort pieces. The first are those based on an elaboration of a pre-existing cantus firmus - whether it be the abstract liturgical chant of the In nomines or the imitative weavings around Browning, based on a popular song ('The leaves be greene the nuts be browne/they hang soe high thay will not come downe'). The second set of pieces are contrapuntal fantasies that are freely invented with no holds barred, but whose invention include unexpected references to songs (such as 'Greensleeves'), broadside ballads (such as 'Syck, sicke & totowe sike/& sicke & like to die') and dances (there are several examples of high-kicking galliards), all of this amidst the motet-like seriousness of music appealing very much to sacred vocal models. The absence of explicit words here can be directly linked to a liberation of the imagination which encourages allegories and visions that mix high and low styles in a manner wholly unauthorised either by theology or even by the dictates of contemporary poetics.

The five-part Byrd In nomines are early works, composed probably in the1560s, and provide the most stunning examples of this 16th-century tradition of pieces in which newly invented imitative voices envelope a chant found originally in a Mass setting by John Taverner entitled Gloria tibi trinitas. Along with many other English composers, Byrd worked in an atmosphere of 'friendly emulation' in these pieces, as Henry Peacham later put it, in which composers such as Christopher Tye, Robert Parsons, Robert White as well as Byrd's own teacher Thomas Tallis, copied and modified one another's themes and counterpoints almost as scholarly contributions to a compendium that was to delight a small circle of connoisseurs who took special pleasure in music containing a high degree of artifice. Byrd's own impeccably crafted ln nomines display his well-known inclination toward 'Gravitie and pietie' in their often mournful eloquence but also manage to evoke a musical world filled with playfulness and joy. Perhaps by representing such a wide emotional range, Byrd meant this music to be understood, in Peacham's words, as 'an enemy of melancholy and dejection of the mind.'

Byrd's viol music is in the first instance player's (rather than listener's) music, in that so much of the delight derives from imitating and responding to gestures which have just been articulated - or indeed are still being uttered. Within a dense web of rival voices, the perpetual replication of musical shapes is all the more enticing, however, when one considers how very loose a framework is provided by the tactus, or musical 'beat': unlike the experience of playing dance music, the one ear that observes the beat so as to play in time has to compete with the other ear who is desperate not to listen, thereby shaping a phrase according to its own inner impulse. Byrd's eloquence results from the mastery of this kind of overlapping 'imitation' which resolutely avoids formula and makes performance surprisingly treacherous even in the apparent safety of the recording studio. As musical figures within a piece move from motet-like solemnity to the infectiously mimetic and dance-like, the thematic overlaps pack a rhythmic punch that can take the breath away. Byrd's startling moves into dance or song also give rise to the joyous illusion that, following a Breughelian chaos of irreverent simultaneous solos, all the individual musicians finally come together to sing in folk-like harmony or to dance to a single choreography. It is in this way that players' music of the most artificial sort becomes - in the hands of Byrd - the very best kind of listener's music as well, a feat that is always the envy of a composer drawn both to ingenuity and feeling.

Laurence Dreyfus ©1997

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