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Sally Dunkley's Early Byrd Discoveries

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

Sally Dunkley's long career as professional consort singer has run hand-in-hand with her interest in 16th-century vocal music as practical scholar. A founding member of The Sixteen, she is also active as editor, with many editions published and recorded.

So many of us remember the first time we were introduced to Byrd’s music because it turned out to be a truly significant moment, whether or not we realised at the time. For me it was linked to the discovery of consort singing, which has been the most satisfying part of my subsequent career as a professional musician.

Aged 14 and on a visit to my aunt, who was a distinguished maths teacher, I found myself in company with her singing friends as they gathered for one of their regular evenings. Their repertoire included a mixture of English madrigals, English-texted anthems and Latin motets by English composers, notably Byrd. The thrill of discovering the possibility of reading music and making sense of it at sight has stayed with me for life, however very imperfect it was at that time.

It’s easy for us to forget that people bought sets of individual printed copies for occasions of this kind - a far cry from our internet trawling and cpdl (it’s free, whatever you think of it).

In the intervening years I edited and hand-copied pages and pages of music for concert use, and continue to miss the beautiful calligraphy of two of my colleagues, which remains far superior to anything a computer can produce.

Three published editions of Byrd's music by Sally Dunkley: Lamentations, Quomodo cantabimus (paired with De Monte's Super Flumina & Four Motets: Mass Propers for the Feast of All Saints.

BBC Radio 3, or indeed its predecessor the Third Programme, was a significant part of my education, as was the series of Argo recordings made by King’s College Cambridge directed by David Willcocks. Slow and dignified, appropriate to the resonant building, these iconic readings brought Byrd’s three Masses to a huge new audience.

Much later, when I first came to sing with the Tallis Scholars, the Byrd Masses were chosen for one of our early recordings, and along with the Great Service a couple of years later, remain on my valued list. For the latter work especially my role models were the wonderful consort singers assembled in London by the great choral director Martindale Sidwell; from him I aspired to learn about making music through expressive phrasing and legato singing, and I’ve continued to work on it ever since.

Now that our world is full of confident and technically expert single-voice consort singers, we have become able to reflect something perhaps more like the soundworld that Byrd himself might have known, whilst remaining aware that his Masses can be sung by single voices, small ensembles or big cathedral choirs - take your pick!

Sally Dunkley



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