Robert Quinney's Ut re mi fa sol la, Part I of II

Updated: Oct 12

Robert Quinney is Organist of New College, Oxford. In addition to the daily direction of New College’s world-famous choir, he is also a Tutorial Fellow of the college and an Associate Professor at the University Faculty of Music. He maintains a parallel career as a solo organist, and he is a prolific recording artist: his discs of organ music by J.S. Bach, Elgar, Dupré, Wagner and Brahms – and several CDs with the Choir of Westminster Abbey and The Sixteen – are widely acclaimed.

Where to begin, and how possibly to choose? Turn at random to a page in a scarlet Byrd Edition volume (or grey Musica Britannica for the keyboard music) and you’ll almost certainly find a masterpiece. Unable to settle upon a single piece, I’ve written two short essays: one, here, about a piece for keyboard (virginals, harpsichord, organ – it’s equally good on all of them, and on a Steinway) and one about a vocal work, which will appear in 2023.

Ut re mi fa sol la is, for me, the quintessential Byrd keyboard piece. It’s a work of seemingly infinite variety and intricate construction. It’s a Hexachord Fantasia (a retrospectively-bestowed generic title), which means the composer has set himself very strict parameters within which to work; but it’s also an almost indecent amount of fun. The construction of the piece must have been intense brain-work, but what Byrd presents us with feels more like a breezy stroll. Up and down a six-note hill we go, and again up and down; sometimes the path is easy to follow, sometimes the composer fools us with a detour. And it is a delight to play; fiddly at times, but always entertaining.

The Hexachord is, to a modern listener, the first six notes of a major scale. Read Ut for Doh, and it’s exactly as Julie Andrews has it (lucky for Rodgers and Hammerstein that, in the 1630s, someone spotted how difficult it was going to be to find a catchy homonym for Ut and thought of a female deer instead). The names of the notes were derived by the eleventh-century monk Guido of Arezzo from the Latin hymn Ut queant laxis, sung on the feast of John the Baptist, 24 June – coincidentally, the night on which another piece of music-about-music, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, reaches its conclusion. Each of the first six phrases begins one note higher than the last, and the initial syllables of the text supply the note-names: UT queant laxis REsonare fibris / MIra gestorum FAmulo tuorum / SOLve polluti LAbii reatum [/ Sancte Joannes] (‘So that thy servants may be able with loosened tongues to resound the wonders of thy deeds, undo the guilt of unclean lips, O holy John’ – thanks to my colleague Stephen Anderson for the prose translation.) The place in the hexachord where a piece of music ended – the so-called ‘final’ – was how you allotted it to one of the ‘modes’; a system that later developed into major and minor keys. For example, a piece in the third, Phrygian mode derives its flavour from its final on MI, and particularly from the relationship between FA and MI, the narrowest interval in the hexachord. Sing the melody of ‘The First Nowell’ without accompaniment, and its warm festive glow is dispelled by a chill wind; it becomes wistful, remote, because of that final FA-MI semitone. It’s also why Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis so confused (Herbert Brewer: ‘a queer, mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea’) or excited (Howells and Gurney pacing the streets of Gloucester all night) the audience at its first performance.

But let’s get back, like Vaughan Williams, to the sixteenth century.

In a hexachord fantasia, that six-note scale is embedded in the music, determining its course – but, here, not overtly. In Byrd’s hands, the hexachord often stands behind the scenes, even as it wields a pervasive and persuasive influence. Just when the fantasia seems to be minding its own business, we glimpse the hexachord (which is always presented in long ‘breve’ notes) and once more we remember that it is fundamentally the business of this music. At the same time, Ut re mi fa sol la fits almost exactly the description of ‘fantasy’ supplied by Byrd’s pupil Thomas Morley in his Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music (1597), which was dedicated to his teacher: ‘when a musician takes a point [what we might call a ‘subject’ or ‘theme’] at his pleasure and wrests and turns it as he likes… the composer is tied to nothing but that he may add, diminish, and alter it at his pleasure… other things you may use at your pleasure are bindings with discords, quick motions, slow motions, proportions, and what you like’. The piece explores a paradox, and in doing so displays extraordinary compositional virtuosity: while Byrd is ‘tied to’ the hexachord, what he conjures for the listener seems to be done entirely ‘at his pleasure’.

I won’t narrate it, bar by bar; but here are a few highlights. You can listen to it, played by Richard Egarr on the harpsichord, here:

or by me, on the organ, here:

(and several other fine recordings are available, notably by Mahan Esfahani and Davitt Moroney, both to be found on Hyperion and therefore not on Spotify).

The piece opens, unsurprisingly, with a rising and falling six-note scale, not in long notes but wearing the rhythmic dress of a contrapuntal ‘point’. Byrd is pacing out the ground, feeling his way into his material, and meanwhile teasing the listener: here’s the hexachord…or is it? At the pinnacle of the scale a syncopation arrives, and beneath it the second voice. That syncopation – where the rhythm sits deliciously astride the pulse, not on it as in a march – gives us sight of what’s to come: a gradual escalation of virtuosity and invention, moving with increasing rapidity toward the dance that breaks upon the thirteenth statement of the hexachord.

Byrd arrays the hexachord across the texture with amazing subtlety. It roves from voice to voice, and since this motion is enacted by the fingers, it is perhaps not so inappropriate to think of Donne in lascivious mode –

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,

Before, between, behind, above, below.

– though one might equally well think of the free parts as the roving fingers, exploring the hexachord from all angles. At first, these parts are set in the open, vocal texture Byrd favours for the initial stages of his polyphonic keyboard music, where ideas are presented, responded to, tested out in musical conversation (see, for example, the magnificent Fantasia [G final], BK 62). Indeed, ‘voices’ perhaps characterises these constituents more accurately than ‘parts’. Suddenly, at the ninth statement of the hexachord we stumble into a solemn Pavan – and a rather tense, glowering one at that, with all conversation halted and a discomforting sense that all is not well (especially when the alto voice rises to A flat, which would sound better as G sharp, i.e. in combination with different notes – you can hear this cacophonous pinch at 4:06 in Egarr’s performance). Kerry McCarthy explains in her magisterial Byrd why the ninth statement is so jarring, so I won’t go into that here, save to say that it’s all to do with the MI-FA semitone (and that you must read her book).

Things have taken an unexpected and uneasy turn, but now the tenth statement begins, and a canzona-style melody propels us back out of doors, and thence to a joyously tricky scurry and tumble up and down the hill, one hand just behind the other, always on the brink of catching up. Finally, as statement thirteen is getting underway the chase reaches its inevitable end: the hands are united in a dance, a triple-time Galliard that sweeps away the memory of that morose Pavan of a minute or so ago. The corporeality of this music is irresistible, both in the fancy fingerwork of its execution and in the physical lustiness of its associations; every bit as suggestive as its companion-piece in the same mode, the variations on the song John come kiss me now.

In addition to its sunny seductiveness, I think the delight of this piece resides in the paradox I mentioned earlier: the music’s original and governing impulse, the hexachord, is continually withdrawn from the listener’s immediate comprehension, yet is constantly there. Ut re mi fa sol la is, as its title tells us, about the hexachord; yet much of the time it seems quite unconcerned with it, indeed it seems be about anything but the hexachord. And this sleight-of-hand connects it to my second piece, the Nunc dimittis from the ‘Great’ Service.

Part II forthcoming in January 2023 - stay tuned!