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William Byrd: Gentleman of the Chapel Roayl.

John Harley, William Byrd: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal

(Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997), 45 [pounds sterling]

This substantial volume of 480 pages is the first comprehensive study of the life and works of Byrd since Edmund H. Fellowes's William Byrd, published in 1936 (a second edition was issued in 1948). John Harley's book has a similar layout to that of Fellowes: it is divided into two parts dealing separately with Byrd's life and works, an approach which the author admits `is far from ideal, but has the advantage of enabling each topic to be examined in an orderly fashion'. Fellowes included Byrd's will, genealogy and a list of his motets in appendices. In addition to these, Harley's appendices include transcriptions of the wills of other members of Byrd's family, a discussion of Byrd's handwriting and a full catalogue of his works. This new volume represents a considerable expansion upon the work of Fellowes, especially in biographical matters, reflecting the research undertaken by many scholars, Harley included, during the intervening 60 years.

The first part of the book deals with the biography of Byrd, and takes account of much recent research in order to give as full a picture as possible of the composer's life. Also included are tables containing useful details of historical background, listing political, social and literary events during the years Byrd was alive. Harley provides many fascinating insights into not only the life of Byrd himself, but also the lives of his family and those with whom he was associated. It is instructive to reflect on two aspects of Byrd's life. The first concerns the property transactions and disputes which appear to have occupied him from shortly after he was sworn in as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 until well into old age. One might wonder how he managed to compose as much as he did when his time and energy were frequently taken up in litigation. His elder brother John was apparently also involved in certain financial dealings which resulted in his being committed to the Fleet Prison in 1581. Second, Byrd's recusancy is well known, but his Catholic connections went far beyond mere absence from church: as Harley notes, `Byrd was keeping dangerous company in the mid-1580s' (p.79). William Weston, Superior of the Jesuit mission in England in 1584, described a gathering at the house of one Richard Bold at which Catholic services were secretly held. Byrd was present, along with Weston, and possibly also Father Henry Garnett. Weston was imprisoned between 1586 and 1603, and Garnett, who had a hand in sending Byrd's son Thomas to the English College in Valladolid, was executed in 1606 in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. Weston's account says that the choristers were members of the household: readers with a keen eye to performance matters may like to note that he also says they were both male and female. One imagines that there were many such clandestine gatherings at which Byrd's music would have been performed.

The most significant discovery in this part of Harley's book is evidence that Byrd was not born in 1542 or 1543 as previously thought, but in 1539 or 1540. The former dates were based on Byrd's statement in his will that he was `in the 80th yeare of myne age'. Harley suggests that the will was drafted `a few years before a fair copy was prepared for Byrd's signature' in 1622, and arrives at the new date of birth on the basis of testimony submitted by Byrd to the Court of Star Chamber, in his own hand and dated 2 October 1598, in which he describes himself as `58. yeares or ther abouts' (p.14). Harley also casts doubt on Fellowes's assumption that Byrd's wife Julian died some time after 1586, and that he remarried someone by the name of `Ellen' or `Helena'. It seems that Julian Byrd may still have been alive in 1608, and that for some reason she was confused in the records with her son's servant Ellen Barcroft.

On occasions Harley falls victim to the temptation to convert into fact at a later stage what he had originally put forward as reasonable speculation. In chapter 1 he ventures the opinion that immediately before going to Lincoln in 1563 Byrd almost certainly `acted as assistant organist in the Chapel Royal, and helped to rehearse the singers' (p.24). At the beginning of chapter 2, in describing Byrd's appointment to Lincoln, this becomes: `William Byrd was a candidate who was little short of ideal: an accomplished organist with experience in training the choir of the Chapel Royal' (p.30). This tendency is more apparent when Harley is dealing with the chronology of Byrd's music. For instance, on p.283 he expresses surprise that `none of Byrd's songs can safely be identified as the product of his student years or his time at Lincoln', i.e. before 1572; yet on p.292 we are told that a collection of Whythorne's songs was `published in 1571, shortly before Byrd took up song writing'. This and other similar statements are liable to mislead: the truth is that the precise dating of many of Byrd's pieces still relies on circumstantial evidence and intuition.

Regrettably, the discussion of Byrd's music is much the weaker part of the book. One major shortcoming is the matter of terminology, which suffers from being inconsistent and, at times, anachronistic. Some pieces are described as being in a particular mode, others in a key. This issue is further confused on p.218, where Harley labels some modes as `major' and others as `minor'; and of Emendemus in melius he says that the `key is the twice transposed Aeolian (G with two flats)' (p.239). There is also an unfortunate use of anachronistic terms such as tonic, subdominant and so on. Initially these are introduced with some reservations, but thereafter appear with increasing frequency. On p.190, for example, while discussing a keyboard piece by High Aston, Harley says: `In (anachronistic but convenient) harmonic terms, Aston alternates two bars of the dominant with two bars of the On p.192 three keyboard grounds by Byrd (MB tonic.' xxvii/9, xxviii/86 and xxvii/43) are described as being `based on triple-time four-bar sequences of notes that offer few opportunities for straying from the tonic, dominant and subdominant'. On p.200 Byrd's fantasia MB xxviii/62 is reported as having a first section `ending on the "tonic", balanced by the second section, ending on the "subdominant"'. The placing of quotation marks around the offending words in the last example suggests that Harley himself is uneasy using such terms; however, he carries on employing these and other anachronisms. A clear definition, and consistent use, of analytical terms would have been helpful. Harley is also apt to slip in puzzling statements from time to time. In note 24 on p.84, for example, he says that `The juxtaposition of major and minor chords looks very like a device discovered at the keyboard'; on p.207 we are told that the musical phrase to which `Lamentatione' is sung in De lamentatione Ieremiae prophetae is `a precursor of the fugal opening of Beethoven's late C sharp minor string quartet'. I admit to being baffled by both these remarks.

A few more musical examples would have been welcome: a total of 30 seems rather inadequate, given the quantity of music discussed. The chapter which deals with the Gradualia, for instance, is 24 pages long and contains just four musical examples. Harley stresses that his main concern is with chronology, but with so few examples of Byrd's work given, it is difficult for the reader to gain an accurate impression of his development as a composer. It would also appear that the musical examples were not properly checked in proof: I count no fewer than seven examples with mistakes.

These reservations aside, much of Harley's discussion of the music is generally fair, if only because he relies rather too heavily on previous studies, particularly those by Joseph Kerman and Oliver Neighbour. Although it would be unrealistic to expect a large number of musical revelations or discoveries in a life-and-works volume such as this, one would have hoped for rather more in the way of original observations. Taken as whole, then, this study has a distinctly lopsided quality: it is a pity that the admirable and generally sound biographical part is not balanced by a more penetrating account of Byrd's musical achievements.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Grimshaw, Julian
Publication:Early Music
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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