Purcell and Byrd - fantasias and consort songs

These program notes were written by Elise Groves and Shirley Hunt for a program of viol fantasias by Henry Purcell and consort songs of William Byrd. The concert was presented by The Henry Purcell Society of Boston in collaboration with Sonnambula on October 5, 2018.

William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) probably received his early musical training in the Chapel Royal, studying with Thomas Tallis who would become his very close friend. Returning to London after working in Lincoln, Byrd became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 and was named Joint Organist of the Chapel, a title he shared with Tallis. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I granted Byrd and Tallis a patent and monopoly on the printing and marketing of part-music and lined music paper. Their first publication was naturally dedicated to the queen. Having the support and favor of the ruling monarch was essential for Byrd’s success because his personal beliefs put him in direct opposition to the crown.

Any discussion of Byrd must take into account the religious and political upheaval of the time, for Byrd was a Catholic in a vehemently Protestant nation. Fortunately, Elizabeth I tolerated his “seditious” beliefs even though others were executed for sharing them. As with many things in history, making something illegal does little to discourage it from flourishing. Byrd eventually moved from London to Stondon Massey. Here his creative energies, protected by the benevolence of his patrons and an order from the Queen herself, turned to the music of the Catholic liturgy, writing Latin motets, three mass settings, and the Gradualia - polyphonic settings of all the propers for an entire church year - all designed for secret celebrations of the mass in private homes and performance by soloists or small ensembles, rather than large choirs. The texts of his motets were intended to be messages to the Catholic faithful, with themes of the Babylonian captivity, or last words of martyrs, or other scriptural texts that could be read with a double meaning.

Though Byrd is known now primarily for his sacred music, his output is incredibly vast, covering almost all of the genres of his time. Unlike sacred songs, which are limited by the requirements and texts of the liturgy, secular songs provided composers with a very broad world of themes and ideas to explore. “Consort song” generally refers to a uniquely English genre of a piece for solo voice accompanied by instruments, frequently a viol consort. Unlike the madrigal, which used various compositional techniques to vividly illustrate the meaning of the words, in a consort song the music and the text have a much different relationship. The sung line exists as an equal partner in the polyphonic texture. The words are set plainly, with limited word painting. Though in description that makes the consort song sound rather austere, this texture allows for even more expressivity on the part of the performers and a clearer delivery of the meaning of the text to the audience.

This austerity in particular is what made the consort song such an effective genre for setting devotional poetry, as well as laments and elegies. O Lord, how vain is a beautiful setting of a somber text, not intended for a church service, but still sacred in nature – more likely intended for private performance and devotional use.

In angel’s weed was an elegy written for Mary, Queen of Scots after her beheading in 1587. Mary was a first cousin (once removed) of Elizabeth I, and had been married to Francis II of France until his death in 1560. She returned to Scotland, remarried, but was eventually forced to abdicate the Scottish throne and sought refuge in England. Mary was Catholic, and many English Catholics supported her as the legitimate heir to the English throne instead of Elizabeth I. Mary spent 18 years under house arrest in England before being found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth I. The word “weed” in this context (and later in Ye sacred muses) simply means “clothing”.

Perhaps the best known of these elegies is Ye sacred muses, composed after the death of Thomas Tallis in 1585. After a few lines of poetic imagery, Byrd sets aside text device and artistic formality to express plainly his own deep grief over the loss of his mentor and close friend with the simple yet devastating line “Tallis is dead and music dies.”

The consort song was not only used for somber texts – Ambitious love, Though Amaryllis dance in green, and The nightingale all have the familiar themes of success and failure in romantic pursuits common to most secular genres of the Renaissance. While Byrd generally avoided madrigals, he recognized a marketing opportunity and reworked many of his consort songs into a more madrigal-like form, adding text to the instrumental parts for the publication of Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs in 1588. This allowed these pieces to be performed both by consorts with soloist (as he had intended originally) but also by madrigal enthusiasts.

Byrd’s tendency to use texts with multiple meanings extended to his secular consort songs as well. On the surface, My mistress had a little dog appears to simply be a tale about a favorite pet who met an untimely end, followed by the idea of what would happen if the animals put the offending human on trial. It is possible, however, that Byrd was actually referring to the beheading of Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex. Devereux was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, but also a Catholic who was eventually executed for treason after a very public trial. In the context of this song, “coneys” are rabbits, Appleton Hall was the home of one of Byrd’s patrons, and the gallows at Tyburn were the main place of execution for London until the late 1700s.

Any list of “most celebrated English composers” would certainly include both William Byrd and Henry Purcell. Though essentially a century apart, Purcell knew Byrd’s works very well – in fact he had copies of many of Byrd’s pieces including the magnificent Ne irascaris in his personal library.

Relatively little is known about the life of Henry Purcell, despite the widespread recognition he enjoys today. Born about 1659 on the eve of the Restoration of the English monarchy, the young Purcell also received his early musical training as a chorister at the Chapel Royal. When his voice changed in 1673, Purcell was appointed assistant to John Hingeston, an organ-builder, viol player, and composer who was responsible for the maintenance of the royal keyboard and wind instruments. From 1674-1678, Purcell dutifully tuned the organ at Westminster Abbey, and in 1677 he succeeded Matthew Locke as court composer for Charles II’s string orchestra. In 1679 Purcell succeeded John Blow as organist of Westminster Abbey, and in 1682 he received a further appointment as one of three organists of the Chapel Royal.

Over the course of about two weeks in the summer of 1680, Purcell produced an astonishing set of Fantasias for viol consort, composed in three, four, and five parts. These remarkably intricate pieces dazzle listener and player alike with virtuosic counterpoint, surprising harmonic shifts, pangs of pleading dissonance, and cascading fugal material. Moments of poetic homophony are also interspersed amidst these endlessly inventive episodes. Purcell manages to invert, reflect, augment, and superimpose thematic material in a way that expands all previously known limits. (Somehow, I feel the 21st century listener should be invited to make a connection here to Bach’s Art of the Fugue, and perhaps even to the Op. 20 and Op. 33 Quartets of Joseph Haydn – all works that exhibit unparalleled mastery via four independent voices.)

Some speculate that these Fantasias were a set of compositional exercises, an extension of Purcell’s enthusiastic study of English and Italian counterpoint. It is highly unlikely that these works were related to Purcell’s activities at court; by this time, consort music was falling out of fashion, and many would have thought Purcell’s fixation on the idiom to be rather backward-looking. If the Fantasias of Purcell were performed at all during his lifetime, it would have been in private, under highly personal circumstances, not anything like tonight’s highly visible ticketed performance at St. Paul’s!

And yet, there is something so special and remarkable about this facet of Purcell’s output that we feel it must be shared; we find ourselves inspired by the challenge of presenting this very private music in a concert setting, where we have the chance to bring out the many contrasting qualities these pieces display. As a reminder, Purcell produced these profoundly sophisticated pieces when he was just 21 years old. We can only wonder, what would he have gone on to create had he lived past 36 years of age? What other musical forms would he have exhausted with the mastery exhibited in these Fantasias?

Based on a five-bar ground bass, the serene Evening Hymn is one of Purcell’s most beautiful devotional songs. This anthem was published in Henry Playford’s 1688 collection Harmonia Sacra as a setting of a devotional text by Bishop William Fuller (1608-1675). This text, while intended to be sacred, lends itself well to both sacred and secular interpretations. Tonight, we close our program with a version for soprano and viol consort arranged by Fretwork, a superb consort of viols based in England. In doing this, we follow in the tradition of Byrd – rewriting madrigals as consort songs and vice versa to suit the situation and the performers at hand. We have every confidence that both Byrd and Purcell would have approved.