William Byrd Suite (1924)
William Byrd lived during the unique period of musical history when England was enjoying a creative era of great unaccompanied choral literature. A pupil of Thomas Tallis, Byrd was best known for his superb polyphonic settings of sacred texts. He was also one of the founders of the English Madrigal School.
In 1923 Gordon Jacob contributed to the tercentenary of William Byrd’s death with a sensitive setting of six pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book which he entitled Suite: William Byrd. The pieces were selected from the seventy in the book because they seemed appropriate to the tonal framework of the British military band.
The first movement of the suite, “Earle of Oxford’s Marche,” is taken from a collection of keyboard pieces which Byrd conceived as a single work titled The Battell. The stately magnificence of this steadily measured music captures the great dignity of a distinguished personage. Movement two, “Pavana,” slow and sustained with its long, arching lines, contains especially eloquent writing for the winds.
Movement three, “Jhon Come Kisse Me Now,” has that harmonic charm and rhythmic vitality that is so much a part of the English madrigal and keyboard style of Byrd’s time; it is a set of seven variations on an eight-bar tune. The fourth movement, “The Mayden’s Song,” begins simply enough for a unison of brasses, then unfolds its steady contrapuntal and figurative development toward a masterful agglomeration of sounds that Jacob distributes with affectionate regard for the original. Movement five, “Wolsey’s Wilde,” displays the suppleness that Byrd often brought to pieces of limited harmonic possibilities through skillful and imaginative play on that restriction. Jacob adds the element of instrumental texture to point out Byrd’s implied dynamic contrasts. The suite concludes with “The Bells” (Variations on a Ground), in which a simple two-note rising figure persists without interruption and above which is unfolded, in gathering momentum, a set of variations built upon the limited sounds of bells all keyed in B-flat.
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