Richard Turbet's Byrd, Incidentally

Updated: Jun 7

An Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Aberdeen, Richard read English at University College London 1966-69, qualified as a librarian at Leeds Polytechnic, specializing in Music, and after a year as a research assistant at Calgary University, Canada, and brief spells at libraries in England, went to Aberdeen University Library in 1977, where he remained until retirement in 2009. While at Aberdeen he fulfilled a desire to pursue a further degree this time in Music, completing a dissertation about Byrd for his M.Litt., which became the basis for a book, leading to many articles, to further editions of the book, and to writing or editing other books about Byrd, Tudor music and music librarianship.

An Essex Boy, I have the good fortune to have been born into a musical family. My paternal grandfather was a military bandsman, a clarionettist (sic) in the Grenadier Guards. (The Army decided my grandfather could not spell his own surname and persisted in spelling it Turbett.) My father was a fine amateur pianist, excelling in Chopin. My mother, as was still the way among older, more traditional parents after the Second World War, was also a good pianist but hid her light under a bushel in order for attention to be focused on my father. This is no sleight upon my father. My mother was also born in Essex but was the polar opposite of the modern Essex Girl. She was considerably older than him, and was the dominant influence in our family of three. It would never have occurred to my father to tell my mother to conceal her talent as a pianist, and he would have had no idea that this was her choice to do so. I began lessons on the piano aged five, with an excellent local teacher, Miss Lina Collins, who had been a pupil of a pupil of Clara Schumann! I did well, and achieved grade 7 with distinction when schoolwork intervened in my early teens.

Thereafter for a couple of years my interest in classical music drifted. I had discovered rock’n’roll, and more significantly blues. I still liked classical music but felt no ownership of any actual aspect of it, no focus. I had won a scholarship to what was then called a public school for boys, to which I travelled as a day-boy. It still had a conservative, elderly and old-fashioned Head Master who did not regard Music as a subject for academic study, but who nonetheless encouraged a thriving musical culture among the boys. One such manifestation of this was The Combined Choir, in which, once one reached the sixth form, our callow tenors and basses were joined by the sopranos and contraltos of a nearby county high school for girls. The Choir was accomplished enough to give concerts annually in St Martin-in-the-Fields at Christmas, and in St Bartholomew the Great at Easter, besides other engagements. Some boys joined the choir for a love of music; some joined for the girls; to be honest, I joined for a bit of both … but mainly for the music, of course. Although notionally conducted by members of the choir, it was run by two wonderful old teachers, Donald Francombe and Florence James, who were inheritors of the ethos of the Arts and Crafts Movement. I now realise that the repertory was remarkable. The first piece I sang was Taverner’s Mass The Western Wind. This was so far off my radar that I could scarcely orientate myself musically. Next we sang Byrd’s O magnum mysterium. Miraculously everything became clear and focused. This was the music with which I could engage, music that I owned, music that owned me. Not end of story; very much, beginning of story. Byrd became, and has remained, for me a principal academic and recreational focus ever since. In the two brief “Byrd Stories” that follow, he is a presence, but they recount two incidents involving other people. The first incident involves a colossus of Byrd scholarship, but Byrd barely impinges on the narrative; the second involves a friend and historian who was only aware of Byrd because of my interest in the composer, but this time Byrd is central to the yarn.

I had corresponded with Joseph Kerman over a few decades and now, in 2005 at the International William Byrd Conference organized superbly by Kerry McCarthy at Duke University, Durham, NC, we met in person. Of the great triumvirate from that generation of Byrd scholars, I had met both Oliver “Tim” Neighbour, a fellow librarian, old school English, initially formal, once slightly prickly, subsequently affable; and Philip Brett, also English, who initially seemed to be suspicious and defensive but who subsequently relaxed. Joe was relaxed and affable from the get-go - I can only say that in my experience his personality was on a par with his Byrd scholarship! Although 100% American, Joe had actually been born in England in 1924, and in his early teens attended University College School at Frognal, in Hampstead, London, from 1937 until his family moved back to the USA in 1939. On Google, in the case of many schools like UCS – and indeed Bancroft’s, which I had attended – there are lists of their distinguished alumni (before you ask, no!). One evening, after Joe passed away in 2014, I looked up UCS’s list, and found no sign of Joe’s name. I contacted the school, and initially drew a blank. It then emerged that Joe’s family name was Zukerman, and it was after he had left UCS that he used the shortened form Kerman as a pen name, subsequently adopting it formally as his surname. I contacted UCS again, and they were only too pleased to print my obituary for “Joseph Wilfred Kerman (Zukerman)” in the school magazine, The Gower (2014 – the school was founded in 1830 by University College London, originally sharing premises on Gower Street, Bloomsbury; former pupils like Joe are known as Old Gowers). And indeed he appears on Google, as Joseph Kerman, in the category of “People educated at University College School”, as well as in two other lists of Old Gowers. Result!

My friend Peter is an historian and homoeopath. He is married to Sue, an enthusiastic amateur pianist, but Peter himself would not claim to be musical, though he is a steward at their thriving local annual music festival. There, he would have been aware of Byrd’s music being performed by the likes of Fretwork, but otherwise it is fair to say that had he not encountered me, he would not otherwise have been familiar with Byrd. Not so long ago he sent me a reference to Byrd which he had seen in a history of English herbals, books with descriptions of herbs and their uses. I was of course grateful to Peter, but with what turned out to be the deepest disrespect to him, I did not anticipate any great revelation to emerge, and took my time over following the reference up. More fool me. It led me to a still-room book that originated in Yorkshire during the sixteenth century, which contained, incongruously among the recipes and remedies, a list of a dozen contemporary works for keyboard which the contributor to the book, Barbara Cholmeley, “hath learned and can play”. The manuscript had been discovered around 1883 in Newcastle by George Weddell, a Scotsman from Kelso, and he laboriously “traced the entire volume by hand” and published the resulting facsimile in Newcastle in 1890. Initially what excited me was that the list included half a dozen pieces by Byrd used, during his lifetime, for teaching purposes, as far from his base in London as the North Riding of Yorkshire. What then emerged from among the half dozen pieces not by Byrd were the titles of two hitherto unknown pieces by Ferdinando Richardson and, likewise hitherto unknown, arrangements for keyboard of two consort pieces by Anthony Holborne. O me of little faith. Here was Peter, someone with only a passing knowledge of Byrd, showing the kindness and taking the trouble to pass on to me a passing reference to Byrd, from a book about nothing whatever to do with music, much less Byrd, and yet it provided me with the seeds of what turned out to be an article of worthwhile substance in The Musical Times - “Mr Bird, Mr Ferdinand and Mr Holborne: new lessons”, volume 160, Autumn 2019, pages 87-92. This brings home the value of friendship, and the thoughtfulness of friends in remembering one’s interests, something one would aspire to reciprocate. Also it gives one enormous encouragement that such new discoveries about – in this instance – Tudor composers can still be revealed and researched into the 21st century. Even many years into retirement “this sort of thing” helps to get me out of bed in the morning.

So, there we have Byrd incidentally. First, how Don Francombe was instrumental in introducing me to Byrd as an incidental part of the repertory of The Combined Choir; secondly, how Joe Kerman came to have his obituary in the magazine of his old school, thanks very incidentally to Byrd; and thirdly how a book entirely incidental – indeed, otherwise completely irrelevant - to music provided the essential material for new discoveries about Byrd and two of his important contemporaries.

Richard Turbet, 2022