by Katie Bank
“To all true lovers of Musicke….
Being excited by your kind acceptance of my former travails in Musicke, I am thereby much encouraged to commend to you these my last labours, for my “ultimum vale”. Wherein I hope you shall find music to content every humour: either melancholy, merry, or mixt of both.” - William Byrd
This is the long-awaited first complete recording of Byrd's final songbook, Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets (1611). By one calculation, this disc has 14 previously unrecorded tracks of Byrd's consort song. Brought to life by Harry Christophers, The Sixteen, and Fretwork, this double-album features notes from Kerry McCarthy and is available now your favourite retailer (hint, if you want to support their indy label, CORO, buy direct from the artists).
One of my favourite things about Byrd's consort song is the multitude of ways it can be performed. Scholars believe that Byrd's 1588, 1589, and 1611 songbooks were largely conceived as consort song (song for solo voice with accompanying viol parts), and later underlaid with text for all voices, perhaps to make them more marketable for those who preferred the madrigal or part song styles. This also allowed for flexibility so you could play this music with what combination of voices/instruments you had on hand. For modern recordings, this means the musicians must decide how to perform each song. Do we use 1 singer with 4 viols? 2 singers with 3 viols? All 5 parts as voices? And do we use solo voices, or multiple singers on each part? This makes each recording unique.
As an example, compare these two recordings of Byrd's 'Come, Woeful Orpheus' (1611): one with viols from the Newberry Consort, and the other with a cappella voices from The Sixteen. The different combinations of instrumentation bring out dramatically different colours and affect in the music:
Whiteny's A Choice of Emblemes (1586)
One of the most unique aspects of Byrd's 1611 set is its connection with a contemporary 'picture book'. Byrd engages with contemporary visual/print culture in fascinating ways by taking texts and inspiration from Geffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblemes (1586), a popular printed book of emblems that includes texts Byrd set to music such as 'Of flattering speech', and 'The Eagle's force'.
Emblem books featured a series of printed wood block pictures with accompanying mottos or poems. The texts and images often taught the reader moralising tidbits or other snippets of wisdom. Whitney's cover claims that 'by the office of the eye, and the ear, the mind may reap double delights through wholesome precepts, shadowed with pleasant devises: both fit for the virtuous, to their encouraging: and for the wicked, for their admonishing and amendment.' Emblems were highly influential upon other artistic forms, including drama, interior decoration, and even music.
Let's listen to Byrd's settings alongside the Whitney's prints (click the arrows in the image to expand). Byrd sets two texts from Whitney inspired by Aesop's fable 'The Ant and the Grasshopper', 'In winter cold' and 'Whereat an art':
Of Flattering Speech' shows a small snake slinking up a strawberry bush:
'Who looks May Leap' depicts the final couplet of text (while also punning on the composer's name); 'The bird in hand, we may at will retrain, / But being flown, we call her back in vain'.
And for the Apple Music users...