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Byrd. By Kerry McCarthy. (Master Musicians Series.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. [xvi, 282 p. ISBN 9780195388756 (hardcover), $39.95; (e-book), various.] Music examples, figures, appendices, bibliography, indexes.

William Byrd's music tells the story of his life. It documents his maturing skill and artistry, his changing musical interests, the shifting concerns of his time and place, and the practical pressures and conditions of musicians and music making. Kerry McCarthy follows the trail of the music, beginning with Byrd's first forays into Latin psalmody, climaxing with his magisterial Gradualia (his mature homage to the Catholic liturgy he cherished), and closing with a postscript that includes a few last songs and instrumental works. Byrd's own writings, such as the prefaces to his printed collections and other documentary evidence, flesh out the account. From her own fluid knowledge of the period, its sources, and its music, McCarthy supplies a rich, densely-populated background for her portrait of one of England's most revered composers. Her book illustrates just how broadly and vividly music can represent an entire culture as well as the life of the composer who created it.

Published as a part of Oxford's Master Musicians Series, Byrd invites readers from a wide swath of interests and musical knowledge to consider Elizabethan and Jacobean England as Byrd experienced it: the religious instability of his first decade as a composer, followed by the reactionary religious and musical strictures after the brief Catholic interlude of Queen Mary's reign; music preserved and circulated in sources created by printers, scribes, and private copyists; patrons ranging from the Church, to the Queen, to a friend among the nobility. Readers with interests in history, England, music history, the Renaissance, and biography will savor McCarthy's sympathetic but clear-eyed view of Byrd navigating his world. Her seemingly effortless prose shows us Byrd's persistent religious conviction despite opposition from law and social practice, his varied professional career, and his individual musical style--vocal and instrumental, sacred and secular--within the tastes and practices of his day. Illustrative music examples detail specific compositional practices and style traits. McCarthy interprets the music so as to reveal the nature of the musical genres of the period, Byrd's approaches to compositional problems, and the influence of Byrd's contemporaries on his music. Commentary by Thomas Morley, England's preeminent writer on music, frequently places Byrd's practice in perspective, as in this description of the Fantasia: "a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shall seem best in his own conceit" (p. 29).

Each chapter takes its theme from Byrd's musical activity. His first position at Lincoln Cathedral testifies of his prowess at a young age--and of the tension that his virtuosity elicited. In Lincolnshire, he met his wife and they began to have children. Chapter 5, "Royal Patronage," describes the wealth of musicians as well as artifacts flowing to the royal court in the late 1530s after Henry VIII closed the abbeys, monasteries, and chantries. Byrd's entry into the royal court in the 1570s, during Elizabeth's reign, thus placed him within the richest musical establishment in England, and brought to him and Thomas Tallis the lucrative patent for music printing and an occupation in the business side of music. Chapter 8 centers around two motet books printed in 1589 and 1591--"among Byrd's greatest achievements" (p. 102). In Protestant England, these Latin motets would have had no public currency, thus they offered an opportunity to consider the private taste of "skilled musicians of all sorts: Catholic and Protestant, male and female, courtly and bourgeois" (p. 104). Morley understood that sacred music should "draw the hearer, as it were, in chains of gold by the ears to the consideration of holy things" (p. 167). Chapter*), "My Lady Nevell's Book," affords a glimpse of a single source, its accomplished scribe (who also makes a later appearance in the book), a significant patron, the taste of aristocratic amateur musicians and music lovers, and Byrd's approach to keyboard genres. In chapter 11, "Court and Country," we see Byrd retreating from city and court to Essex, taking up residence in a rural community that included Catholic friends and patrons, and where Byrd also showed a contentious side. Documents detailing some of his disputes, McCarthy drily notes, "do not make edifying reading" (p. 152). Devotional practices among his Catholic peers and patrons, however, spark rare insight into religious and musical life in the private homes of Byrd's distinguished patrons, the Petre and Paston families.

Chapter 13 surveys Byrd's monumental Gradualia, his two settings of Mass Propers: "luxury items, to be sung just once a year on the appropriate occasion" (pp. 178-79). The compendium was "the largest single collection of polyphonic music ever printed in Renaissance England ... a formidable and expensive undertaking for Byrd and his printer" (pp. 180-81). Byrd's Essex neighbor and fellow Catholic, John Petre, offered a loan to support the project. McCarthy's 2007 book, Liturgy and Contemplation in Byrd's Gradualia treats the subject in detail (New York: Routledge); here, she sets the ambitious project within the context of Byrd's entire oeuvre, with attention to selected works that convey musical or religious significance. Analysis of the contents reveals an organizational structure that incorporates liturgy, tonal structure, voicing, and musical coherence. More than any other music, the Gradualia conveys Byrd's personal practices: "It is no coincidence that Byrd used the language of meditation--'thinking about divine things, diligently and earnestly turning them over in his mind'--to describe his own work as a composer" (p. 191).

Byrd's death marked the end of a celebrated period in English musical history. Byrd closes with a candid assessment of his personality, character, and musical legacy and a thoughtful accounting of the celebrated composer's stature and influence among his contemporaries, pupils, and successors, including Thomas Morley, Thomas Tomkins, Thomas Weelkes, Orlando Gibbons, Peter Philips, John Bull, and Henry Purcell.

Five helpful appendices guide readers through documents, literature, and music. Appendix A, "Documents of Byrd's Life," serves as a biographical chronology. Appendix B, "List of Works," identifies full modern editions of Byrd's music with alphabetical listings of individual works according to genre; each entry includes voicing and date. An index of Byrd's works tracks their appearance within this book. Appendix C, "Personalia," briefly identifies people associated with Byrd. Byrd and his music have drawn sustained expert attention with major studies ranging back nearly a century and a new edition of the collected works completed in 2004. Appendix D is a select bibliography, and appendix E, "A Reader's Guide to Byrd Literature," offers readers further description in a bibliographic essay organized according to category.

Musicologists often wresde with the problem of writing for the audience beyond the academy. Music examples, technical descriptions of music analysis and style, and terminology unique to music often blockade the bridge between academe and an engaged musical public. Kerry McCarthy has succeeded in breaching the barrier with an inviting, thought-provoking narrative that draws readers into William Byrd's life, music, times, and places.


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Author:Thomas, Jennifer S.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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